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Friday, November 18, 2005

William B. Bryant, 1911-2005: Pioneering D.C. Judge Beat Racial Odds With Wisdom

By Yvonne Shinhoster LambWashington Post Staff WriterTuesday, November 15, 2005; Page A01 Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, whose love for the law and the Constitution became hallmarks of his long career as a groundbreaking lawyer, the first black federal prosecutor and later the first black chief judge of Washington's federal court, died Sunday night at his home in Washington. He was 94 and frail, said his daughter, who gave no exact cause of death. Bryant achieved a remarkable legacy, overcoming years of segregation in the legal profession with a steady focus on the facts and the law. To him, the law and the court system offered the best hope for people to be treated fairly. He held to his belief, grounded in his work as a lawyer during the racially torn 1950s and 1960s, that the court system could administer justice. In one case early in his career as a lawyer, he won a landmark decision before the U.S. Supreme Court on defendants' rights, arguing that a person must be brought promptly before a judicial officer for a hearing of the charges. He also oversaw one of the longest-running cases in the court's history, involving overcrowded and inhumane conditions at the D.C. jail. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said District residents admired Bryant as a Washingtonian who spent his life overcoming racial odds to represent residents with such excellence that the bar and the legal establishment itself had to admit him. "In Judge Bryant's closed, segregated Washington, a black lawyer could not achieve what he did by the protests we are used to today," she said. "He was left on his own with only his excellent, disciplined mind, his understanding of the meaning of justice, his determination to succeed and his zeal for public service." He was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on July 12, 1965, by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He served as chief judge from 1977 to 1981, and was believed to be the first black chief judge of any federal District Court. He assumed senior status in 1982 and continued to hear cases until a few days before his death. Thomas F. Hogan, the current chief judge of the District Court, called Bryant "the soul of the court." He "sought to achieve equal justice, always careful to preserve the dignity of those who appeared before him," Hogan said. In a legal career that stretched nearly 60 years, Bryant handled numerous prominent cases as both a lawyer and a judge. As a defense attorney, he was considered one of the city's best and often was assigned to represent indigent defendants in important cases. One of these was in the 1950s. Andrew Roosevelt Mallory, 19, had confessed to rape after 7 1/2 hours of interrogation in a police station. After Mallory was convicted and sent to death row, Bryant pursued the case to the Supreme Court. In 1957, the court overturned Mallory's conviction, ruling that any confession obtained by police during an unnecessary delay between arrest and arraignment could not be admitted as evidence. On the bench, Bryant had a notable impact on the affairs of the District while overseeing the 25-year-old case brought on behalf of inmates of the D.C. jail, who said its conditions were overcrowded, inhumane and filthy. At one point, so frustrated with officials' repeated delays in meeting deadlines for improvements and with their inaccurate assertions, Bryant took the unusual step of requiring them to make reports under oath. In chastising the officials, he once said he had listened to their promises to make changes "since the Big Dipper was a thimble." Lawyer William Schultz, who clerked for Bryant in the 1970s, when the D.C. jail case occurred, recalled a surprise visit that the judge made to the jail to see the conditions for himself. As Bryant walked through the jail, "you could sense the respect from the prisoners," Schultz said. William Benson Bryant was born Sept. 18, 1911, in rural Wetumpka, Ala., the only child of a railroad porter and a housewife. Just after his first birthday, his grandfather was forced to flee a lynch mob, and the family found safety on Benning Road in Northeast Washington. Bryant had lived in the District ever since. He came of age in the segregated D.C. school system, graduating from Dunbar High School. He worked as a night elevator operator while attending Howard University and studying political science under Ralph Bunche, then head of the department. He graduated from Howard in 1932 and from its law school, first in his class, in 1939. During law school, he became fascinated with law professor Charles Houston's teachings that astute lawyers fortified with the Constitution could bring an end to school segregation and unjust convictions of innocent black men. In 1939 and 1940, he was Bunche's chief research assistant for a study of the black person in America, which became part of Gunnar Myrdal's treatise, "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy." Bunche was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his landmark study on U.S. race relations. Bryant served in the Army from 1943 until 1947, entering as a first lieutenant and serving in Europe. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. When he left the military and entered private practice in 1948, the doors of most law firms -- and the District of Columbia Bar Association -- remained closed to blacks. He once said he had no special desire to pursue civil rights work in his law practice. "I guess I just got frustrated by the slow process of chipping away at discrimination," he said. "Besides, a lot of other lawyers were already on their way in that field. Maybe I came along 10 years too late or 10 years too early." His reputation as a criminal defense attorney took him to the U.S. attorney's office in 1951, making him the first black prosecutor in federal court here. But even there, he was not allowed to use the D.C. Bar Association's law library. So he researched his cases with the help of a black court employee who opened the library to him after closing time. He returned to private practice in 1954 as a partner in the powerhouse black law firm of Houston, Bryant & Gardner. He was also an adjunct professor at Howard and taught trial advocacy on Saturday mornings for more than 20 years. He was a member of the DePriest 15 Club and played golf with the Pro Duffers in Washington. His wife of 60 years, Astaire Bryant, died in 1997. Survivors include two children, William "Chip" Bryant and Astaire A. Bryant, both of Washington; a niece, Beatrice Jones, who was like a daughter to him; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Two years ago, his fellow judges unanimously requested that the new annex to the District's federal courthouse be named for him. On Friday, President Bush signed the bill to do that.

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