Billy Roy Wilson (1939–)
Scott County native Billy Roy Wilson is a raconteur, a mule and guinea fowl farmer, and a longtime civil and criminal defense attorney. In 1993, he began serving as U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas. In 2008, he chose to go on senior status designation, maintaining a ninety percent case load.
Born to Roy Wilson and Vada Bowen Wilson in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on December 18, 1939, he was named Billy Roy Wilson. The doctor, who was a family friend, erroneously listed the name William R. Wilson Jr. on his birth certificate. The error was not discovered until some years later. After Wilson’s birth, the family returned home to Forester (Scott County), an isolated and company-owned sawmill town in the Ouachita Mountains region of Arkansas. In Forester, Wilson developed an appreciation for the sure-footed, hardworking mules that were important in the logging operation.
His father, receiving summons to jury service at the Federal District Court in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), took young Wilson with him. The younger Wilson was clearly intrigued with the proceedings, and the presiding judge, John Miller, invited him into chambers during breaks and jury deliberations. They discussed a variety of topics, including quail hunting, the law, and Miller’s days in the U.S. Senate. Wilson’s aspiration to be a federal judge was sparked.
As sawmill operations began shutting down at Forester, the family moved to Waldron (Scott County) in 1953. Wilson found Waldron more diverse, with “farm folks and town folks.” He played football and basketball for Waldron High School, and joined an active Boy Scout troop. Assistant Scout Master Joe Huie became his mentor and great friend. Huie came to have a profound influence on his life and is described by Wilson as having been “philosopher and psychologist, a wise and dearest friend.” Decades later, he and Huie would establish the Rasputin Mule Farm. Their mule, Cobbs Believe It or Not, was a world-champion gaited mule.
As his high school years drew to a close, Wilson’s application for a Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship required submission of his birth certificate, which prompted the discovery of the incorrect name on the document. The only attorney in Scott County, McDonald Poe Sr., petitioned the court to change the name to Billy Roy Wilson. The petition was granted, but the courthouse records were later destroyed, and his birth certificate still reflected the incorrect name.
Wilson attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and played football his freshman year. Returning for practice his sophomore year, he was redshirted (a practice of taking a college athlete out of competition for a year in order to develop skills and extend the period of eligibility for play). He transferred, that day, to Hendrix College in Conway (Faulkner County), where he played football and studied social sciences and history, graduating in 1962.
While at Hendrix, he met Jo Luck Lemley, and they were married in 1962; they had a son and daughter. The couple divorced in 1980.
Wilson was accepted to Vanderbilt Law School in Tennessee. He graduated in 1965 and returned to Arkansas, where he served as deputy prosecuting attorney for Miller County. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1966 and served “three years, five months, three days, and five hours,” with much of his service on a guided-missile cruiser, the USS Chicago, during Vietnam deployments. Wilson was the only ensign on the ship qualifying as officer of the deck.
Returning to Arkansas in 1969, Wilson engaged in private law practice with intermittent appointments to public service positions. His appointments included serving as a special circuit judge, on the Arkansas State Police Commission, as special Supreme Court justice on two occasions, as special prosecutor, and as attorney general for a brief time in the mid-1970s when Jim Guy Tucker resigned to take a seat in Congress.
Wilson earned an outstanding reputation as an attorney and served as president of the Arkansas Bar Association and on the American Board of Trial Advocates. He was occasionally described as “Little Rock’s Stetsoned version of Matlock” and “[the attorney] you want if your life depends on it.” Representative of his cases are the criminal defense of Justice John Purtle, the civil case of Sonny Simpson against the City of Little Rock, and the “death-qualified jury” case of Lockhart v. McCree, 476 US 162 (1986) before the U.S. Supreme Court, for which he served as co-counsel.
Wilson was also co-counsel on one of the most high-profile criminal cases in Arkansas, the 1982 murder of Alice McArthur, during which an already disagreeable relationship between Wilson and Pulaski County sheriff Tommy Robinson developed into one of open hostility. In 1983, Wilson was co-counsel with the team of attorneys that represented Alice McArthur’s husband, Bill McArthur, after Robinson arrested McArthur for a role in the murder. The charges were eventually dismissed, and a grand jury refused to indict him. McArthur, represented by Wilson, went on to sue Robinson in a civil suit that was settled out of court.
In 1984, Wilson married attorney Roxanne Tomhave; she died from cancer in 1992.
Governor Bill Clinton, in 1990, expressed doubt about seeking reelection, and Tommy Robinson entered the race. Wilson, who was fulfilled in his legal career and not prone to electoral aspirations, strongly committed to joining the race if there was to be no serious opposition to Robinson. He had begun laying significant groundwork for a campaign when, to his relief, Governor Clinton announced he would seek reelection.
A staunch liberal, Civil War “Union sympathizer,” opponent of daylight savings time, and advocate of the jury system, Wilson is no stranger to fierce critics, and he has never been one to shy away from a fight. He has had several well-known and humorous feuds over the years with newspaper reporters, editors, and opinion writers.
Appointed by President Clinton in 1993 to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Wilson easily won Judiciary Committee endorsement and confirmation by the U.S. Senate. He was sworn in on October 1, 1993, and began presiding over the court from his rocking chair. He is known for his Christmastime visits with past clients or defendants in his court who are incarcerated.
When former University of Arkansas (UA) basketball coach Eddie Sutton, a witness in the 2004 suit brought by UA basketball coach Nolan Richardson against UA, became impassioned in court, he was cautioned by Judge Wilson, who said, “For just a short time, I’m the head coach.” In a 2010 environmental case involving the Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO), Wilson recused himself after the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved an injunction he had issued. In a colorful and well-publicized recusal order, Wilson cited the Fouke Monster and the Ernest Tubb song “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello.” Other notable cases in his court include the Pulaski County School District desegregation litigation and the Prempro hormone replacement therapy litigation.
Wilson married longtime friend and attorney Cathi Compton in May 1997.
A driver’s license renewal in 2011 rekindled the subject of his name again, with his birth certificate and Social Security records reflecting different names. His wife filed a petition in Pulaski County Circuit Court for a change to Billy Roy Wilson. The petition was granted.
Judge Wilson lives at Wye Mountain with his wife and several mules, goats, and guinea fowl.
For additional information:
Lyons, Gene. Widow’s Web. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Nelson, Rex. “Arkansas’ Sawmills.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 25, 2022, pp. 1H, 6H. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/dec/25/looking-back-arkansas-sawmills/ (accessed December 27, 2022).
Smith, Doug. “An Obstinate Liberal.” Arkansas Times, April 5, 2007. Online at https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/an-obstinate-liberal/Content?oid=865374 (accessed September 19, 2017).
Weist, Jason M. “Judge of Character.” Soirée (August 2011): 18–21. Online at http://www.littlerocksoiree.com/post/25967/billy-roy-wilson-has-a-flair-for-being-a-federal-judge (accessed September 19, 2017).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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