Chief federal judge Terry L. Wooten, an experienced state and federal prosecutor, rose from humbleness in Lower Richland and came to wear a robe with the backing of South Carolina political legend U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
The judge made headlines Wednesday when he rejected as too lenient a plea agreement that would have allowed ex-Lexington County Sheriff James Metts to avoid prison in a public-corruption case.
About 25 years ago, Wooten found himself in the eye of a political typhoon during his tenure as chief Republican counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee for the bruising confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Wooten served as minority counsel from 1986 to 1991.
Wooten would be accused by a journalist, a decade later, of leaking confidential, damaging FBI files about a second woman who had said Thomas had made crude remarks to her. Wooten denied the allegation under oath to the Judiciary Committee during his own confirmation hearing.
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Wooten, 60, has an identical twin brother, Garry Wooten, a Columbia attorney. The twins in 1970 helped the Lower Richland High Diamond Hornets capture the state 4-A football championship the first year the school rose to the 4-A level, according to news accounts.
Garry Wooten was the quarterback for the team led by local coaching legend Mooney Player. Terry Wooten was a safety and kicker.
As have many other S.C. federal judges, Wooten worked in the late Thurmond’s Senate office as an aide.
The judge was born in Louisville, Ky., but was raised in the Hopkins community in Richland County. After graduating in 1980 from the University of South Carolina law school, Wooten was an assistant solicitor in the 5th Circuit that includes Richland and Kershaw counties between 1982 and 1986. He was a federal prosecutor from 1992 until he was appointed a federal magistrate judge in 1999.
Wooten was elevated to the district court bench in 2001 after a nomination from President George W. Bush. Wooten became the state’s chief federal judge in January 2013.