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June 4, 2013

Robert Leon Wilkins
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Leon Wilkins. Maryland State
Police stopped Wilkins because he was a black man driving
a new car. President Obama nominated Wilkins to the
D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Appeals Court Nominee Was 'Driving While Black' Plaintiff

by Frederick H. Lowe
U.S. District Judge Robert Leon Wilkins, who was nominated today to fill one of three vacancies on the federal appeals court in Washington, was once stopped by Maryland State Police officers. That incident led to a landmark case concerning racial profiling of black-male drivers from which the phrase "driving while black" was coined and popularized.

Wilkins, who currently sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is considered the second-most powerful court in the land after the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Barack Obama also announced the nominations of Patricia Ann Millett and Cornelia Pillard on Tuesday during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Pillard is a Georgetown University Law School professor, and Millet is an appeals court attorney, based in Washington.

Wilkins, Millett and Pillar will fill three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit, and their nominations are expected to set off a battle between the White House and Senate Republicans who don't think the vacancies need to be filled. Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, has voted to eliminate one seat, move a second one to Atlanta and move a third to New York.

The nominees are not expected to raise much objection. Millet worked in the administration of George W. Bush, and the Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkins during Obama's first term.

Wilkins, a Harvard Law School graduate and a native of Indiana, made legal history in 2008, when he and family members, who were riding in a rented vehicle, were pulled over by Maryland State Police for speeding.  As it turned out,  police were ordered to make traffic stops of  black men driving expensive cars because they were believed to be drug couriers.

The Maryland State police stopped, searched and detained Wilkins for no apparent reason, according to ACLU, which filed in 1993 a class-action lawsuit on Wilkins’ behalf. Police stopped Wilkins in 1992.

In 1995, the two parties entered into a settlement in which the Maryland State Police agreed to collect racial data on traffic stops in a case titled Wilkins v. Maryland State Police.

The police, however, ignored the consent decree and continued to stop and search black-male motorists. The ACLU on behalf of the Maryland NAACP filed a second lawsuit against the Maryland State Police, which was settled in April 2008.

This lawsuit resulted in two landmark settlements that were the first to require data collection for all highway drug and weapons searches. This included information regarding the race of the motorist, the justification for the search and the search's outcome.

Judge Wilkins will preside over the sentencing of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and his wife, Sandra, in a few weeks. In February, Jackson pled guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and making false statements. He admitted to conspiring to defraud his re-election campaigns of about $750,000.

Sandra pled guilty to filing false federal income-tax returns.

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