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A Lifetime of Faith in the Law

At 93, Senior Judge William Bryant Still Wins Plaudits for Dedication to Justice

By Carol Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page DZ10

A few days after the new U.S. District Courthouse opened on Constitution Avenue in the fall of 1952, Bill Bryant walked in to start work as a recently hired federal prosecutor.

More than a half-century has passed, and Bryant's life remains centered on that stately granite building in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. It's in those halls that he became a groundbreaking criminal defense attorney, a federal judge, and then the court's chief judge -- the first African American in that position.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, above, hopes that a new annex to the U.S. courthouse in Washington will be named after William Bryant, the nation's first black chief judge on a federal bench. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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Today, at the age of 93, U.S. District Court Senior Judge William Bryant still drives himself to work at the courthouse four days a week and pushes his walker to his courtroom.

At a recent birthday party for Bryant hosted by Vernon Jordan, fellow Senior U.S District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer remarked that there were "only two people in the world who really understood the Constitution" and how it touched the lives of real people.

"That's Hugo Black and Bill Bryant," said Oberdorfer. He had clerked for Justice Hugo L. Black, who retired as an associate justice in 1971 after serving on the Supreme Court for 34 years.

To honor Bryant's life's work, his fellow judges this past spring unanimously recommended that a nearly completed courthouse annex be named for him. The $110 million, 351,000-square-foot addition will add nine state-of-the-art courtrooms and judges' offices to the courthouse and is designed to meet the court's expansion needs for the next 30 years. It is slated to open next spring.

In urging that the building be named for Bryant, his supporters cite his devotion to the Constitution and his belief that the law will produce a just result.

During a rare interview in his sixth-floor office in the federal courthouse, Bryant reached out for a pocket version of the Constitution covered in torn green plastic lying on the top of his desk. Holding it aloft in his right hand, he told stories of his struggling former clients and made legal phrases -- "due process" and "equal protection" -- seem like life-saving staples.

Though he needs his law clerk's arm to get up the steps to the bench, he is a fairly busy senior jurist. He handled more criminal trials than any other senior judge last year and still surprises new lawyers with his sharp retorts.

"I feel like I'm part of the woodwork," Bryant said. "I have to think hard to think of a time when I wasn't in this courthouse."

He started down his career path inspired by a Howard University law professor who believed that lawyers could make a difference in that time of racial segregation and discrimination. Bryant said he remains convinced today that lawyers can stop injustice whenever it arises.

"Without lawyers, this is just a piece of paper," Judge Bryant said, gesturing with the well-worn Constitution. "If it weren't for lawyers, I'd still be three-fifths of a man. If it weren't for lawyers, we'd still have signs directing people this way and that, based on the color of their skin. If it weren't for lawyers, you still wouldn't be able to vote.

"The most important professions are lawyer and teacher, in my opinion," he said.

Some lawyers complain that Bryant is so rooted in his criminal defense training that he shows some distrust of the prosecution. And his practice of presiding over trials, but asking other judges to sentence the people convicted, has spurred some curiosity. He won't elaborate on the reason, but his friends say he found the new federal sentencing guidelines inflexible and harsh.

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