A stenographer’s account of the voice mail message might read as if Senior United States District Court Judge Billy Roy Wilson missed the phone because he was powdering his wig. “I would be much obliged if you would leave your number twice, rather slowly.”
Legal documents don’t denote his telling drawl, though.
In truth and in fact—as Wilson loves to say, despite the redundancy– the 71-year-old and his court dress are nowhere near as formal as that of a judge in an era when the phrase “much obliged” was prevalent. He’s actually a legalese-hatin’, cowboy-boot-wearin’, unafraid-to-admihuit-it liberal judge who rules from the bench in a rocking chair. “Ain’t no rules against it, is there?”
It might not matter if there were. Wilson’s a bit of a renegade. Exhibit A: He’s been known to buck sentencing guidelines to give counterfeiters more than the recommended prison term and non-violent young drug offenders less. “We of the whiskey generation stand there with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and we tell those kids to go out and get drunk like the good Lord intended. Little hypocrisy in that.”
He calls his style following the law and doing justice, which is not always the same or easy to achieve. Staying grounded helps, and in his typical unconventional style, he strives to do that by visiting the criminals he has sentenced in prison. “There are some things that are more real in this life than others, but when they clang that door behind you, that gets your attention.” Having ruled since President Bill Clinton appointed him in 1993, he has visited prisoners all the way from Arizona to Wisconsin, learning their interests and later sending them related reading material. He’s as decisive as he is compassionate, though: the interactions don’t cause him to rethink his rulings. “There are some people that need to be warehoused; they’re just not gonna do right.”
For someone so in touch with the burden of his responsibilities and the weight of the power he wields, he sure loves his job. “Being a federal district judge is like getting paid to eat ice cream.” (Let the record show that his favorite flavor is butterscotch milkshake.) In his old ceremonial courtroom, some of his favorite cases are personal injury lawsuits. Besides also ruling over criminal proceedings – the same arena in which he first made a name for himself as a great trial lawyer, defending the likes of bank robbers, murderers and arsonists—he spends more than half his time presiding over some 7,000 lawsuits filed nationwide that pertain to women’s hormone-replacement drugs.
Federal judgeship is only his day job; “I’m primarily a mule farmer,” he said, which may explain why he drinks pink lemonade rather than coffee at 9 a.m. He rises around 5:30 or 6 to feed the dogs, chickens, goats, four mules and a donkey on his Rasputin Mule Farm. The real story behind the farm’s name, like most of Wilson’s mule stories, is longer than a donkey’s gestation period. The short version is that Joey R. Huie, his late mule-skinning partner (it’s not what it sounds), would never reveal his middle name (it was really Ralph), claiming that it was the same as the Russian mystic whose fantastic killing he had recently read about.
It’s not the farm’s only near-link to that part of the globe. Once in the late 1980s, on a trip back from camping in Newfoundland, Wilson and Huie went to see about a mule at Hub Reese Jr.’s farm in Tennessee. Afterward, Reese showed them 128 mules he said the CIA was buying to ship to Pakistan. The government would pay $100 a day if you would fly with them, he said. “I wanted to do it so bad I couldn’t face it, but I’d been gone from my office for three weeks already.” They didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out those mules carried missiles into Afghanistan to fight Soviet helicopters.
Wilson’s mules did battle only in competitive arenas. Cobb’s Believe It Or Not, one mule that died young of a tumor, won the 1996 gaited-mule world championship. All of the mules currently on his farm have competed, but he may never enter one in competition again, he said. “I’m lazy.” He still plans on going to mule shows nationwide, including riding in the annual Fourth of July parade in Gregory, South Dakota, with a trial-lawyer friend from the area, and coyote hunting atop his mules.
Yeah, coyote hunting. Turns out a lot of things can be done atop a mule, including swearing in a law clerk, which, of course, Wilson has done. The image illustrates how intertwined mules and the law are in his life. He developed an interest in both as a boy growing up in Forester, where mules were used for logging at the sawmill because they could navigate the terrain better than horses. Around that time, his father was called to jury duty in Ft. Smith, and the colorful federal judge talked quail hunting with the young Wilson in his chambers while the jury deliberated.
Years later, Wilson went to Hendrix College, then Vanderbilt University Law School. He started practicing in Texarkana before joining the Navy and then moved to Little Rock. He became friends with Huie and worked with eventual Congressman David Pryor, Huie needed a pacemaker and mules to continue camping in the mountains with Wilson, Clinton won the presidency—and before long, Wilson’s spouting western figures of speech as a federal judge.
“Looks like we’re ready to saddle up,” he told lawyers on a conference call the Friday before a trial. “I will have to tell you, with no scolding involved, but I was not going to nominate the original indictment for the most precise pleading in American government this year. Nothing personal.” The lawyers seemed accustomed to his ribbing; the call’s operator, not so much. Before she connected all the parties, she asked Wilson if it was OK if she put him “on music” for a second. “You got country music?” he quipped, causing her to hesitate before figuring out he was teasing.
With some of the stuff that comes out of the guy’s mouth, he could have his own court TV show. Not that he would want one, though: “There’s some good things on TV, I grant you that, but not many.” Instead, he reads, primarily history and biographies. “I like fiction, but I felt like I followed the course of least resistance in college, and I have a desire to catch up.” It’s a result, in part, of his father’s love of Mark Twain and other western humorists that he’s got a wisecrack for almost any subject, even those that a federal judge would be better to avoid, like religion.
“I don’t discuss my religion,” he started, doing a fine job of separating church and state. In the next breath, he says he’s a card-carrying Methodist but his preacher friends joke that he’s a Methodist FBPO—for burial purposes only. “I really distrust people that brag about their religion,” he said. “I’ve seen people sing ‘Glory Hallelujah’ as they stick it to ya. Not knocking religion. I know some very fine people who are religious, and I know some fine people that ain’t, and I ain’t declaring.” Then he says he regularly reads and even quotes from the King James version of the Bible, which his mother virtually had memorized.
Federal judges are also supposed to be nonpartisan, but that doesn’t deter him from talking about politics. He’ll even bring up the subject himself. He doesn’t know as many legislators as he used to, he says, talking about his social life, partly because of term limits, which he says are bad for society. “Gov. Beebe—and I’m not saying this because he’s a Democrat; he’s been in there and knows how it operates—but when he’s gone, who’s got the institutional knowledge in the legislature or the governor’s chair? Mmm,” he grumbled, shaking his head before wrestling ice cubes for the last bit of lemonade in his red plastic cup. “I guess I’m getting political here, but that’s my view.”
Love is not taboo for a judge to discuss, either, but Wilson has little to say on the topic. “It just works out or it doesn’t. I don’t have any advice for the lovelorn.” Thrice married, he’s essentially helped raise five children, the youngest being a recent Little Rock Central High School grad whose mother is his current wife, Cathi Compton. His second wife, lawyer Roxanne Tomhave Wilson, died of cancer. He’s divorced from his first wife, Jo Luck. “You can’t hold it against a woman because she couldn’t put up with me. She’s very talented.”
Folks say the same about his abilities, even people who aren’t that close. “He’s got an excellent reputation as a jurist,” said state Sen. John Edwards, a lawyer from Little Rock who hasn’t appeared in Wilson’s court. Wilson says he shares the universal human desire to be liked, particularly by good lawyers because he wants to be a good judge. The reviews aren’t that objective, though. “I mean, who’s going to come up to say, ‘You’re a dumb judge.’ You just do your best and hope you come out right.” It’s the mature version of the philosophy to which the renegade in him subscribes, the one sported on the license plate of his 2000 Crew Cab Ford Diesel pickup. Do what you want to do, think what you want to think, say what you want to say, and if others don’t like it, “NUTS2U.”