Robert Nugen Wilkin
Robert Nugen Wilkin served only nine months on the Supreme Court of Ohio, yet he had 10-year tenure as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Ohio in Cleveland and believed a judge’s role was “to determine what is right and what is wrong, not only for the clamorous present, but for silent generations yet to come.”
Wilkin was born May 4, 1886 in New Philadelphia, Ohio to former Supreme Court Justice James Foster Wilkin and Virginia Smith Wilkin. Wilkin was educated in the New Philadelphia public schools and the University of Virginia, where he earned a law degree in 1908. Wilkin returned to Ohio following graduation, passed the Ohio bar and went into private practice with his father in New Philadelphia.
Along with his local practice, from 1914 to 1919, Wilkin served as a member of the Ohio Board of Examiners for Admission to the Bar. Following his father’s death in 1914, Wilkin practiced law alone. In 1922, he formed a law firm in New Philadelphia with Cletus Fisher and Arthur Limbach.
In 1934, Wilkin served briefly as a member of the Judicial Council of Ohio before beginning his tenure on the Supreme Court. Gov. George White appointed Wilkin to the bench in March to replace Justice Florence Allen. Wilkin was sworn into office on April 10, 1934. He campaigned unsuccessfully for nomination in the Aug. 14, 1934 Democratic primary election to complete the remaining four years of Justice Allen’s term, losing the primary election race to Charles B. Zimmerman. Justice Wilkin carried only his home county of Tuscarawas.
Wilkin authored seven majority opinions during his tenure on the Supreme Court. One opinion, Small v. The State of Ohio (1935), dealt with the meaning of original jurisdiction and the words “final” and “exclusive” when considering the authority of the common pleas court, as well as Ohio’s justice of the peace and municipal courts under sections of the Ohio General Code.
Horace L. Small was convicted and fined for intoxication. Small appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that the City of Portsmouth Municipal Court had final jurisdiction in such cases as intoxication and the Scioto County Court of Common Pleas lacked original jurisdiction in cases of minor offenses. Wilkin failed to agree with the arguments presented by Small’s attorneys and writing for a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the common pleas and appeals courts. He wrote that the word “final” to describe the jurisdiction of a lower court was not sufficient to preclude the general jurisdiction of the common pleas court. Wilkin wrote further that the Ohio General Code invested the court of common pleas with general authority through the grand jury “to inquire of and present all offenses committed within the county. This authority cannot be taken away through inference or implication.” Wilkin also wrote that “final jurisdiction” merely gives the judgment of the lower court finality that would preclude another trial on the facts of the case.
In January 1935, Gov. White, before leaving office, asked Wilkin to serve as chairman of the Committee to Revise the Conservation Laws of Ohio. The committee completed its work and submitted a report to Gov. White’s successor, Gov. Martin L. Davey and the Ohio General Assembly. Legislation adopted by the Ohio General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Davey in 1937 reflected the committee’s work. The law authorized county commissioners to cooperate with state and federal authorities to create, construct and regulate a system of water conservation and flood control.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Wilkin to the U.S. District Court, northern district of Ohio in Cleveland to succeed deceased Judge Samuel H. West. Roosevelt announced the appointment on May 19, 1939. Judge Wilkin remained on the federal bench for 10 years and retired in 1949 because of poor health. He continued to hear cases on assignment for the next 10 years, before ending his judicial career with full retirement.
Wilkin married Norma Fertig in 1911 and they had one daughter. He died at age 87 at the Whitecliff Manor Nursing Home in Cleveland on Feb. 23, 1973. Funeral services were at the Wilkin family mausoleum in Maple Grove Cemetery in New Philadelphia on Feb. 26, 1973. A memorial service was at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio on March 3.
b. May 4, 1886
d. Feb. 23, 1973
97th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Apr 10, 1934
to Dec 1, 1934