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Federal judge credits Auburn with 'wise and measured' approach to life

Judge W. Keith Watkins
Photo courtesy U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama

W. Keith Watkins '73 balances the scales of justice in the Middle District Court of Alabama every day in hope of a better world. The foundation upon which he built that decades-long career serving society from the bench started at Auburn University.

Watkins chose to earn a political science degree at Auburn because of its safe and beautiful campus, family atmosphere and academic rigor. Despite being naturally talented and graduating high school at 17, he said he "had some growing up to do" when he arrived.

"Natural talent gets you on the team, but it doesn't get you in the game. Hard work gets you in the game," Watkins said. "It took me a year to adjust to that shift in attitude, and to get my grades where they needed to be in order for me to be somebody significant."

Supportive faculty helped Watkins throughout the political science program and gave him career advice while he decided on which path to take. Watkins said the best constitutional law course he ever took was at Auburn, taught by Professor William Pickering, and he still discusses it with other Auburn graduates across the state.

Watkins said the quality of the coursework and the attitude of excellence at Auburn gave him the foundation to compete in the difficult, and sometimes unfriendly, law school atmosphere.

"Life is a series of being a freshman all over again," Watkins said. "There comes a time when you have to sit down and look at yourself and say, 'Can I do this? Yes.' The question is, 'Will I do this?' And so, that attitude at Auburn, I would say it's an excellence. I was challenged at Auburn to be excellent, even if I was playing ball, or leading some kind of a group, or whatever it was that we might be involved in, I was challenged to be excellent."

After graduating from law school, Watkins practiced law in Tuscaloosa for two years and in Troy for 28 years. In 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Watkins to the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

His resume includes mediating more than 200 civil cases, becoming an Alabama Law Foundation Fellow, acting as the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Bar Commissioner, membership in the Alabama State Bar Task Force for Alternative Dispute Resolution and serving as Chief Judge of the Alabama Middle District Court until 2019, where he still presides with senior status.

Throughout his career, Watkins carried the "wise and measured" approach to life he cultivated at Auburn.

"I want to serve people in court. I want to serve the law. I want to find it and apply it in a compassionate way that helps people," Watkins said. "Sometimes, it doesn't make sense that it helps somebody to send them to jail, but maybe I need to help society by sending somebody to jail. I need to help people resolve their civil conflicts, and I feel like I'm being a good neighbor to them, a servant to them by doing that."

Watkins said Auburn values – including hard work, protecting the rights of all and mutual helpfulness – aligned perfectly with his family's virtues and his own purpose to serve.

Outside the courtroom, Watkins sits on the board of the Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. Institute, The American Village and Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum. Through these nonpartisan organizations, Watkins has helped educate thousands of teachers and students on the role of law in social change.

Watkins also makes time to return to Auburn, speaking to classes and helping the Mock Trial Team, to inspire students who will embark on their own legal careers.

"My advice to students is that you have to first find your aptitude. Do it because it's in your field of aptitude and in your field of vision, that you can see yourself in law school," Watkins said. "Auburn has great collateral programs for pre-law students. There are people who really love the law and who love Auburn students, and that's a great combination. At some schools, you won't find that. Some schools you're on your own in pre-law, not Auburn."

Find more information about the Pre-Law Scholars Program in the College of Liberal Arts.

Tags: Political Science Alumni Pre-Law Scholars

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