A newspaper photographer seeking pictures of federal Judge William R. Wilson Jr. is invited to come by the Wilson mule farm at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning. There, the judge says, Sonny Simpson, former Little Rock police chief, and Bill Tranum, retired oncologist and former Razorback football player, will be helping him castrate and dehorn miniature goats. He hopes the photographer isn’t squeamish. (The photographer made it through the assignment without incident, but the memory of the spurting blood stayed with him awhile.)
A couple of things can be learned here: (1) Bill Wilson is a colorful sort, as federal judges go, and (2) he knows everybody in Arkansas, just about. These impressions are buttressed on another occasion, when the judge cuts short an interview so he can go to the races at Hot Springs with a bunch of fellows who played football at Little Rock High School under the legendary coach Wilson Matthews. Bill Wilson didn’t play football for Wilson Matthews in high school, didn’t even attend high school in Little Rock. But, he says, he has been made an honorary member of the group because of a special relationship he had with Matthews. There aren’t many federal judges on that bus, one can be pretty sure.
More oddity: Wilson admits to being a liberal. Some deny it, now that conservatives have made the word into an insult. “When George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrote letters of recommendation for somebody, they’d call him a liberal,” Wilson says. They meant that the person was “favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious matters” and “free from prejudice or bigotry” and “characterized by generosity and willingness to give” — hateful qualities to contemporary conservatives, evidently. But Wilson’s recent ruling in the Little Rock school desegregation case disappointed local liberals who normally think well of him, while winning rare praise from his fiercest and most frequent critic, an editorialist for the state’s largest newspaper. Wilson found that the Little Rock schools were fully integrated, and he freed them from court supervision after many years. He even said nice things about the conservative-dominated Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had reversed an earlier Wilson decision extending court supervision of the schools. Told that his latest finding was unpopular in normally friendly quarters, which he probably already knew, he shrugs. “Every order I’ve made in that case has made somebody mad.” He won’t discuss the decision in detail, because parts of the case are still before him. In that, he is typically judge-like.
Anyway, criticism of the school decision has been mild compared to some he’s received. The Nolan Richardson case brought a lot of adverse reaction. Wilson conducted a non-jury trial of Richardson’s lawsuit against the University of Arkansas after Richardson was fired as the university’s basketball coach. He ruled against Richardson. During the trial, “I got phone calls at home from people who’d been listening to drive-time sports on radio. One guy called and gave me a dog cussing. I could hear a honky-tonk piano in the background. After I hung up on him, I got another one. Same piano.” Finally, a woman called, the piano still working, and accused Wilson of being un-Christian. He unplugged the phone and next day got a different number.
He’s had only one threat that he considered serious, though, since he’s been on the bench, and nothing came of that one. That doesn’t include the threats that all the judges receive from prison inmates.
Wilson was surprised that neither defense lawyers nor Richardson’s lawyers asked for a jury trial of Richardson’s suit, allowing Wilson to make the decision. “I thought about impaneling a jury anyway, which you can do. I told a friend and fellow judge what I was thinking, and he said, ‘You’ve got good precedent. That’s what Pontius Pilate did.’ So I gave up that idea.”
The waiver of a jury trial was especially interesting because the lead attorney for Richardson was John W. Walker, a prominent black civil rights lawyer. Wilson also ruled against Walker in the school case, and some liberal critics of Wilson say that “Bill Wilson hates John Walker.” Wilson says he doesn’t.
Hanging on the wall of Wilson’s office is a football jersey that says “Hendrix College — Undefeated Since 1961.” Somebody gave it to him, Wilson says, and “Actually, the date is wrong. On the Friday night before Thanksgiving in 1960, Hendrix beat Ouachita 7 to 6. That was the last Hendrix football team. I played on that team.” A listener suggests that games between Methodist Hendrix and Baptist Ouachita were big in those days. “Oh yes,” he says. “They played with 12 men. John the Baptist was out there with them.”
Wilson got to Conway by way of Fayetteville. After graduating from Waldron High School, he went to the U of A and played on the freshman football team in 1957. This was when he met his future dehorning associate, Billy Tranum, who was an end for the varsity. Wilson, an end and linebacker, was 6-3 and weighed 168 pounds. “I was the slowest and lightest lineman on the team.” He’s still 6-3 but now weighs 230. “I couldn’t gain weight until I got out of college athletics.”
Wilson was back on the field for two-a-day practices in the fall of 1958, hoping to play on the varsity. Instead, he was redshirted, and left Fayetteville. “But there was no animosity,” he insists. “I’m still a Razorback fan.”
Before he left, he played for, or at least practiced under, Wilson Matthews, who coached linebackers. There was already a connection between the two. Wilson Matthews was named for a great-uncle of Bill Wilson’s. The two families lived in the same part of Pope County. Relatives of Matthews and relatives of Bill Wilson were friends. As you’d expect with a tough football coach on one hand and a young man feeling liberal tendencies on the other, “We were poles apart on a lot of things. But we had a lot of common ground too. We were both fond of that northern Pope County area. When his wife died, he called me and asked me to go to Oaklawn Cemetery north of Atkins and pick out a spot for him and his wife.” Wilson did, and the spot was near the area where Bill Wilson’s family had been burying its dead since 1832. Matthews family markers date back to Civil War days. “I told him, ‘I left Fayetteville because I couldn’t stand to be close to you and now I’m gonna spend eternity 6 feet away.’ ” Matthews lies there now.
David Pryor met Wilson in 1972, when Congressman Pryor was running for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, John McClellan. Wilson had supported liberal Bryant lawyer Ted Boswell in the first Democratic primary, and after Boswell was eliminated, he showed up in the Pryor camp, a hard, productive worker. Pryor was pleasantly astonished, having never heard of Bill Wilson before. “He hadn’t acquired the flamboyance he did later,” Pryor says.
Pryor lost that 1972 race but two years later, he won a governor’s race against Orval Faubus. In that campaign, Wilson and Bill Overton, who’d been to law school with Pryor in Fayetteville, may have been Pryor’s closest confidants. A few years later, Pryor became a senator and both Overton and Wilson became federal judges, Overton appointed by President Jimmy Carter and Wilson by President Bill Clinton. Pryor had considerable input, although he says now, “Those two gentlemen didn’t need a lot of input. They were exceptional people.” Overton died in 1987.
Pryor recalls that Wilson did a lot of speaking for him during Pryor’s political campaigns. “I was better off staying at home and letting him go speak. He’s a fascinating, totally honest individual. He probably has as many friends as anyone I know.”
Though he was normally a sound liberal Democrat before he became a judge, there’s a mark on Wilson’s record too big and too black to be ignored. In two political races, he supported Ed Bethune, a conservative Republican and possibly the most Nixonian candidate ever to run in Arkansas. Bethune was the kind of candidate who edited tapes to make his opponent look worse, and who called press conferences to announce that he wasn’t going to make an issue of his opponent’s onetime membership in the ACLU. Actually, it’s probably unfair to call Bethune “Nixonian,” even though he employed Nixon’s kind of campaign tactics. Garrison Keillor has written that Nixon Republicans were mostly moderates, and Nixon himself “the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor.” Bethune was much more of a Newt Gingrich Republican and has, in fact, worked for both Gingrich and Tom DeLay, the quintessential mad-dog partisan, since he left Arkansas. Before leaving, he headed up Arkansas’s largest savings and loan association, First Federal. When the whole S and L industry collapsed, the presidents of some of the failed associations were prosecuted, including Jim McDougal, a friend of Bill Clinton’s. McDougal’s tiny Madison Guaranty S and L sank with $73 million of taxpayers’ money. First Federal went under at a cost to taxpayers of $833 million. Bethune, who was also chairman of the Republican State Committee, left First Federal before the association was taken over by federal regulators. An FBI memo said that First Federal was “believed to have much greater prosecutive potential than Madison Guaranty,” but Republican regulators showed no interest. Bethune departed First Federal with a $368,000 settlement after only eight months on the job. Jim McDougal died in prison.
After all that, Wilson still won’t apologize for supporting Bethune, as obstinate as the mules on his farm. He was a lawyer before he was a judge, and when lawyers aren’t busy protecting widows and orphans and the American Way, they have a pretty keen sense of self-interest. Bethune was a lawyer. Bethune’s opponent in a congressional race was Doug Brandon, a businessman and moderate Democrat. Brandon was not only a non-lawyer, he’d opposed legislation that was sought by lawyers, according to Wilson. Furthermore, “Ed and I had been good friends. We’d worked together on several cases. He was very able.”
But Wilson could usually be found supporting people like Pryor, Clinton and Dale Bumpers, before he was appointed to the bench. Now, he’s a man without a party, like all federal judges. People get appointed to these positions because they’ve been loyal partisans, at which point they’re ordered to stop being partisan. Wilson says he tries very hard to comply. As a Clinton appointee, he excused himself from all matters involving Clinton during the Whitewater investigations, for example. Judges who were former Republicans and who’d worked against Clinton in political campaigns felt no need to disqualify. One of them slapped a contempt citation on the president of the United States.
Wilson had supported Clinton and knew him slightly before the appointment, but they weren’t close. “I’d represented his mother and brother in some personal matters, and when Hillary first came into practice, I was associated with her in some criminal cases. She wanted broader experience. She was a very able lawyer. [Like Ed Bethune.] But I was never in Clinton’s inner circle the way I might have been with David Pryor at one time.” Pryor was close to Clinton.
As a trial lawyer, Wilson was one of Arkansas’s best. An opposing lawyer once identified him in a legal proceeding as the best. He alternated between personal-injury law and criminal law. “I spent 50 percent of my time on criminal cases, and got 10 percent of my income. I couldn’t give it up.” A background in criminal law is rare among federal judges. Criminal lawyers tend to have shady reputations — because of the people they represent — and for one reason or another, most of them aren’t big supporters of political candidates. That means few of them are appointed to the bench. Criminal lawyers are among those who give rave reviews to Wilson in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, which publishes anonymous lawyers’ evaluations of judges. (See accompanying article.) Those evaluations are significant because it’s hard to find lawyers who will make negative comments publicly about the judges they practice before. The almanac gives them the chance to vent, and in the case of some judges, they do. Not with Wilson.
Wilson grew up in Scott County in a sawmill town called Forester that’s not even there anymore. “It was a company-owned town. The company owned everything, even the church house. We’d have a Baptist service one Sunday and a Methodist service the next. I couldn’t tell the difference except we sang from different hymnals.” He liked watching the loggers work with mules. “Horses couldn’t handle the rough terrain.” Years later, he became a mule fancier. He has mules at his farm near Bigelow, northwest of Little Rock, and at one time owned the world’s champion gaited mule, Cobb’s Believe It or Not. The goats at the farm will be less aggressive and less smelly now, Wilson says.
His parents were school teachers and stalwart Democrats. “All the conservative columnists say Roosevelt didn’t end the Depression, World War II did, and there’s some truth in that. But you can’t tell that to people in Scott County, where the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] saved people from malnutrition.” He remembers being paid a dollar to hand out Adlai Stevenson handbills all day during the 1952 presidential election.
While he was at Forester, his father got called to jury duty in Fort Smith under federal District Judge John E. Miller. Wilson accompanied him, and spent a week in Fort Smith watching trials. When the jury was deliberating, Judge Miller would take the boy into his chambers, where they talked abut bird hunting and Wilson’s newly discovered ambition — to become a federal district judge. “The odds would have been better to be senator or governor,” he says. A person has to be in the right place at the right time to become a federal judge. In Wilson’s case, that meant there had to be a vacancy to be filled while a Democrat was in the White House.
When Wilson was 14, the sawmill left Forester and Forester left the map. The Wilsons moved to Waldron. After high school, it was Hendrix and Vanderbilt Law before he began practicing at Texarkana in 1965. He was in the Navy for three years and after he got out, he moved to Little Rock and practiced there until Clinton appointed him judge in 1993. Now 68, he’s not talking about retirement plans just yet.
He remains a vigorous proponent of the jury system, now under attack by “tort reformers.” The late federal Judge Henry Woods was a hero to Wilson. Like Wilson, Woods had been a successful trial lawyer and active Democrat, before he was a judge. “Henry Woods used to say the Holy Ghost descends into the jury room when the jury deliberates. I don’t go that far, but of all human institutions, I’ve got more confidence in the jury system than any other. I tell every juror that I believe we have the best justice system here in America that ever existed, because it guarantees the right to trial by a randomly selected jury.”
Wilson has less to say than might be expected when he’s asked what it takes to be a good judge. “You have to remember that ‘judge’ is a verb as well as a noun. Decisiveness is very important. There’s a story about an Arkansas judge who has a 7-year-old son that hasn’t been named yet.”
But he carries a card in his billfold with advice for judges: “Be honest and just when you make decisions in legal cases. Do not show favoritism to the poor or fear the rich. Lev. 19:15.”
“It’s not the King James version,” Wilson apologizes. “I love the King James, but I like this quote better.”