Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken would seem an unlikely figure to hold the future of major college sports in her hands.
Petite, bespectacled, serious and scholarly, the 64-year-old federal judge is known to be more inclined toward a hobby such as quilting than spending Saturdays tailgating or watching a college football game. As one of her colleagues puts it, "It's kind of ironic. She really is not a sports person."
But to most in the Bay Area legal community, Wilken is nevertheless the right judge to handle a hot-button issue such as the legal challenge to the NCAA's ban on compensating student athletes -- and the veteran judge will decide the case after she completes a three-week trial that is now underway in her Oakland federal courtroom.
A 1993 appointee of former President Bill Clinton, Wilken has earned a reputation as a thorough and tireless judge, handling a wide spectrum of high-profile and often controversial cases in her tenure. She once struck down California's term limits on state legislators (a ruling that was later overturned), has presided over a 20-year-old case that has forced state prison officials to accommodate disabled inmates and was one of just a handful of federal judges to find the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional before the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down last year.
For her part, Wilken considers such contentious issues part of the job. In an interview Friday in her Oakland chambers just after the NCAA trial broke for the week, she said she's "learned a lot" since joining the court.
Wilken declined to discuss the NCAA case, which has attracted national attention, or say anything about whether she's much of a sports fan, joking, "Whatever I'd say about that would wind up in Sports Illustrated."
But she said she's become accustomed to cases that put her in the spotlight.
"You just realize that everything you say on the bench could be in the newspapers," said Wilken, trying to fit in a salad before heading to San Francisco for another judge's swearing-in. "Anything you write can be appealed, so I'm used to being on the public record regardless of what kind of case it is."
Sen. Barbara Boxer recommended Wilken for the federal judgeship, after she'd spent a decade as a magistrate judge. At the time, Wilken was a rarity because she was one of the few federal judges in the region to have specialized in criminal defense work before joining the bench, including three years as a federal public defender.
Cris Arguedas, an East Bay lawyer and chair of Boxer's judge selection committee at the time Wilken was selected, said Wilken has turned out to be as expected, "making tremendously important decisions, and every one of them has been well thought out ... and well-respected."
What's an ESPY?
During the NCAA trial, even with prominent athletes parading through her courtroom, Wilken has been all business, demonstrating her trademark Minnesota-bred stoicism. Known for a wry sense of humor, Wilken has interjected a few one-liners when lawyers wander off-track or get into tiffs with hostile witnesses.
But Wilken also made it clear she had little patience for lawyerly gamesmanship in the trial, warning lawyers not to interrupt her and at times taking over direct questioning of witnesses to explore her concerns about the case against the NCAA. When former University of Alabama star Tyrone Prothro testified that a famous catch won an ESPN "ESPY" award for best play of 2006, Wilken didn't hesitate to interject: "What's an ESPY?"
And while legal experts say it's unclear how she'll rule in a case that alleges the NCAA's ban on paying college football and basketball players violates federal antitrust laws, the judge has repeatedly rejected the organization's efforts to sidetrack the trial in decisions upheld by a federal appeals court.
Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor, said that whatever Wilken decides in the NCAA case, it will be "careful, nuanced and detailed."
"She's got a low-key personality," said Little, a former federal prosecutor. "But she doesn't make any mistakes."
Wilken, who got her undergraduate degree from Stanford and law degree from UC Berkeley, will step down as chief federal judge at the end of this year, choosing not to fill the full seven-year term to give Judge Phyllis Hamilton, a close colleague, a chance to take over the job.
Wilken, a lifelong Democrat married to former civil rights lawyer and now Alameda County judge John True, also is taking semi-retired, or "senior," status, a move that allows President Barack Obama to fill her seat before he leaves office.
"There is no insincerity in Claudia Wilken," Little said. "You get exactly what you see."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.