All too often we finally get around to reflecting on special public servants after they are no longer with us. Typically we don’t take the time to honor these extraordinary people while they are alive and generously sharing their talents to enhance the public good. Judge Charles R. Wilson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is an extraordinarily gifted public servant. Fortunately, he is alive and well, and tirelessly serving the public in Tampa, Florida. His life and career have been exemplary, and not by coincidence.
Judge Wilson, a fourth-generation Floridian on both sides of his family, was born in Pensacola, Florida in 1954 and at age eight moved with his family to Tampa. He graduated from Jesuit High School in Tampa in 1972 and then attended the University of Notre Dame receiving a B.A. degree in 1976. Immediately thereafter he attended Notre Dame Law School and was awarded the Juris Doctor in 1979. His father was also a lawyer and practiced with great distinction for 40 years in both Pensacola and Tampa. When the opportunity presents itself, Judge Wilson will tell you with a very rare and faint expression of pride that his two daughters are also lawyers and that each of them have one of their degrees from their dad’s alma mater, Notre Dame.
Judge Wilson is a rare talent, and to no one’s surprise, his career has been meteoric. Upon graduating from law school, he received a prestigious appointment as a law clerk to Judge Joseph W. Hatchett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. After his clerkship, he returned home to Tampa to serve as an Assistant County Attorney for Hillsborough County before entering private practice. After five years of private practice, at the tender age of thirty-two, Governor Bob Martinez appointed him Hillsborough County Judge in 1986. In 1990, he was appointed Magistrate Judge in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.
While Judge Wilson’s career from his law school graduation in 1979 through his time as a U.S. Magistrate Judge was impressive, it took a sharp upward trajectory in 1994 when President Bill Clinton appointed him United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida—one of the busiest in the nation with offices in Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Ft. Myers. During his five years as U.S. Attorney, Judge Wilson brought stability to an office that was in great need of it. The whole office was lifted by his impeccable reputation as a homegrown straight shooter. During his tenure, he vigorously prosecuted over 100 cases involving public corruption, drug dealers, and organized crime. And despite facing intense public scrutiny, he prosecuted cases against public officials in his home town of Tampa.
In 1999, President Clinton rewarded him for his demonstrated commitment to law and order as U.S. Attorney by appointing him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. His review by the American Bar Association yielded a “Highly Qualified” rating. Thereafter, in a show of bipartisan support, he was confirmed by a vote of 98-0 in the United States Senate just 64 days after being nominated by President Clinton. In an enjoyable quirk of fate, the vacancy Judge Wilson was to fill on that court was the one which was created by the retirement of Judge Hatchett, the very judge he had clerked for directly out of law school. It is also telling and interesting to note that among Judge Wilson’s current clerks is a very capable and talented young man by the name of Rashad Green, Judge Hatchett’s grandson.
While on the 11th Circuit bench, Judge Wilson has been involved in numerous very high profile cases such as Elian Gonzalez v. Reno, 212 F.3d 1338 (11th Cir. 2000), but the best glimpse of who he is reflected in his dissent in Shiavo ex rel. Shindler v. Shiavo, 403 F.2d 1223 (11th Cir. 2005). In deliberating this very high profile case dealing with terminating life sustaining medical procedures, Judge Wilson opted to err on the side of sustaining life rather than upholding the trial court’s decision to withdraw life support.
While all the foregoing clearly describes an amazing career of a very talented man, those who know him know he is much more than that. Judge Wilson is deeply devoted to his family, his profession, and his community. His reputation as a person, not just a judge, is enviable. He is well known for his humility, generosity, thoughtfulness, and kindness. It is as though he doesn’t realize just how prestigious his position really is. His life is an exemplar of the biblical adage “conduct your affairs with humility and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” Sirach 3:19. He is a living lesson for all of us. Although he freely gives of himself to his profession and community, he seeks no limelight, attention, or adulation. So much so that he really is unsung or certainly “undersung.”
It has been my great privilege to have known Judge Wilson since we met as young lawyers in private practice in Tampa in the early 1980s. We were both active in the Hillsborough County Bar Young Lawyers—he beat me to become president. To be sure, the best man won. It has been a joy to see such a good man do so well. He truly is a one of a kind.