William W. “Billy” Wilkins, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, former United States District Judge, and former Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission, concentrates on Appellate Advocacy, Shareholder Litigation/Corporate Compliance, White-Collar Criminal Defense, and Business Litigation.
Judge Wilkins' career spans more than five decades, and includes extensive service to his state and profession.
A native of Greenville, he served as a law clerk for a federal appeals court judge and as a legislative assistant for a United States Senator before entering the private practice of law. He began public service in 1974, when he was elected Solicitor (district attorney) for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in South Carolina. Four years later, he was re-elected with broad bipartisan support.
During his six years as the circuit's chief prosecuting attorney, he organized one of the nation's first joint state-federal task forces and successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile cases. In addition, he organized the first Victim-Witness Assistance Program in South Carolina, which was subsequently recognized as one of the best in the nation by the National Organization for Victims Assistance and the National Institute of Justice. He also created the first Child Abuse Prosecution Unit and the first Pretrial Diversion Program in South Carolina.
Since the early 1980s, the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office presents the “Billy Wilkins Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.” The award honors “individual law enforcement officers who have displayed outstanding qualities in the execution of their duties in the field and in the courtroom.”
Judge Wilkins taught Criminal Law and Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Family Law at Greenville Technical College for 24 years.
He gained national recognition when President Reagan appointed him United States District Judge for the District of South Carolina on July 22, 1981 – the president’s first selection to the federal bench in the nation.
Four years later, President Reagan appointed him the first Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission. Judge Wilkins' mandate was to bring about dramatic and positive changes in the nation's federal criminal justice system. As leader of the Sentencing Commission, he was responsible for establishing sentencing guidelines, policies, and practices for the federal courts. He was deeply involved in all aspects of the Commission’s work, including writing guidelines addressing white-collar offenses.
In 2010, U. S. Senators were considering President Obama’s nomination of several candidates for federal judgeships in North and South Carolina. During the confirmation hearing, Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions of Alabama praised Judge Wilkins’ work: “I WOULD SAY THAT JUDGE WILKINS’ LEADERSHIP IN ESTABLISHING THE SENTENCING GUIDELINES WAS PROBABLY THE GREATEST CHANGE IN THE ENTIRE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM SINCE THE FOUNDING OF THE REPUBLIC.”
Judge Wilkins chaired the Commission until 1994 while also serving as a federal judge. In June 1986 he was appointed U.S. Circuit Judge for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1999, he was named Chair of the Committee on Criminal Law for the federal judiciary by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
On February 15, 2003, he was elevated to the position of Chief Judge of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, serving in that capacity until July 1, 2007, when he elected to take senior status. While Chief Judge, he also served as a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States.
In Law School
He served as Editor-in-Chief of the South Carolina Law Review and Captain of the Moot Court Team. He was also a member of the Order of Wig and Robe and was named the Outstanding Graduate of the Year.
In the Military
In addition to his distinguished legal career, Judge Wilkins served 27 years in the U.S. Army (active and reserves) and in the South Carolina National Guard. After serving 2 years on active duty, he served for 14 years as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the Army Reserves and 11 years as the State Judge Advocate for the S.C. National Guard. Judge Wilkins has received numerous decorations and awards, including the prestigious Legion of Merit for Meritorious Service, and holds the retired rank of Brigadier General.
Community & Professional
- Certified Arbitrator, American Arbitration Association, 2009-present
- Permanent Member, Judicial Conference of the United States
- Member, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
- Member, American Bar Association
Billy led the United States Sentencing Commission which was responsible for establishing sentencing guidelines, policies, and practices for the nation’s federal criminal justice system.
On April 16, 2010, U.S. Senators were considering President Obama’s nomination of several candidates for federal judgeships in North and South Carolina. During the confirmation hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, praised Billy's work:
"I would say that Judge Wilkins' leadership in establishing the sentencing guidelines was probably the greatest change in the entire criminal justice system since the founding of the republic."
Each year, South Carolina's Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor's Office presents the Billy Wilkins Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement. Since the early 1980s, the awards have honored "individual law enforcement officers who have displayed outstanding qualities in the execution of their duties in the field and in the courtroom."
Honors and Awards
- Recognized by Chambers USA, America’s Leading Lawyers for Business, South Carolina, Litigation, General Commercial, 2023
- American Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award
- Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the S.C. Governor
- American Board of Trial Advocacy, SC Chapter, Exemplary Service Award
- International Compliance & Ethics Award, Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2018
- Trial and Appellate Advocacy Award, South Carolina Bar, 2013
- Compleat Lawyer Platinum Award, University of South Carolina School of Law Alumni Council, 2012
- Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees: University of South Carolina, Charleston School of Law, and Anderson University
- Honorary Doctor of Public Service degree: Coastal Carolina University
- “The Life and Trials of William Walter Wilkins,” Cover Article, The Greenville Journal, 2011
- "Lawyer of the Year" in Greenville, S.C., Best Lawyers in America, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2020, 2022 and 2024
- Bet-the-Company Litigation and Criminal Defense - White Collar and Appellate Law, Best Lawyers in America, since 2010
- Litigation: General Commercial, South Carolina, Chambers USA, 2010 - 2018
- “The Life and Trials of William Walter Wilkins,” Cover Article, The Greenville Journal, 2011
- "Top Lawyers" TALK Greenville Magazine, 2022-2023
- “Legal Elite of the Upstate,” Criminal Law, Governmental Relations-International Law, Greenville Business Magazine, 2022 - 2023
- "Legal Elite of the Upstate" (Top Attorney Vote), Government Affairs Law, Criminal Law, Business Litigation Law, Greenville Business Magazine, 2016, 2018 - 2020, 2023
- "Top 25 South Carolina Super Lawyers,” Thomson Reuters, 2014 - 2017
- "South Carolina Super Lawyers," Civil Litigation, Thomson Reuters, 2012 - 2018
- Keynote speaker, "How Court Decisions Impact Economic Development," Southern High Court Conference, 2011
Judge Wilkins played a pivotal role in negotiating the deal that brought the Boeing facility to North Charleston, S. C. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell authored a letter to the editor in the February 3, 2010 edition of The Greenville News thanking Wilkins for his leadership in helping Boeing and the legislature come together. And, after the first 787 Dreamliner rolled off the production line, the Columbia Regional Business Report featured a cover story entitled “Winning Boeing” which detailed his lead role in helping the aerospace manufacturing giant choose South Carolina.
Judge Wilkins has testified on sentencing and related criminal justice issues before several House and Senate Committees. He has delivered lectures throughout the United States and abroad.
In addition to the many opinions authored by him as a federal district and circuit judge, his numerous legal publications are:
- Discovery of Existence and Amount of Defendant's Insurance Policy, 17 S.C.L. Rev. 750 (1965)
- Lockouts: Return to the Common Law Ruling, 18 S.C.L. Rev. 299 (1966)
- The Family Purpose Doctrine, 18 S.C.L. Rev. 638 (1966) [also in THE PERSONAL INJURY COMMENTATOR (Callaghan & Co.)]
- Plea Negotiations, Acceptance of Responsibility, Role of the Offender, and Departures: Policy Decisions in the Promulgation of Federal Sentencing Guidelines, 23 Wake Forest L. Rev. 181 (1988)
- Sentencing Reform and Appellate Review, 46 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 429 (1989)
- Relevant Conduct: The Cornerstone of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, 41 S.C.L. Rev. 495 (1990)
- The United States Sentencing Commission: Its Many Missions, 55 Federal Probation 26 (1991)
- The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984: A Bold Approach to the Unwarranted Sentencing Disparity Problem, 2 Criminal Law Forum 355 (1991)
- The Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Striking an Appropriate Balance, 25 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 571 (1992)
- Comments of Judge William W. Wilkins, Jr. on Federal Sentencing Guidelines Symposium, 29 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 795 (1992)
- The Role of Sentencing Guideline Amendments in Reducing Unwarranted Sentencing Disparity, 50 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 63 (1993)
- Competing Sentencing Policies in a "War on Drugs" Era, 28 Wake Forest L. Rev. 305 (1993)
- The Legal, Political, and Social Implications of the Death Penalty, 41 U. Richmond L. Rev. 793 (2007)
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- 08.30.2019 | Media Mention
- U.S. Supreme Court
- S.C. Supreme Court
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
- U.S. District Court for the District of S.C.
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services