A Modest Servant of Law and Life

Judge William Benson Bryant
Judge William Benson Bryant (Courtesy Of The U.s. District Court)
By William B. Schultz
Friday, November 18, 2005

William B. Bryant was once told by his grandfather that he would "have to work twice as hard to go half as far as a white person." Following that advice, Bryant became the first African American prosecutor permitted to try cases in Washington's federal courthouse, where he had been barred from using the law library because of his color. Judge Bryant, who died this week at 94, went on to serve as the first African American chief judge in the District of Columbia's federal court.

To his friends, Judge Bryant's achievements as a lawyer and judge were easily explained by his talent, character and work ethic. Much more difficult to understand was how a man who had experienced harsh discrimination before reaching such a powerful position could be so modest and have such a deep faith in the law, with no hint of bitterness about the racial prejudice he had endured.

Judge Bryant's modesty was legendary. When outside the courthouse, he never identified himself as a federal judge but simply introduced himself as "Bill Bryant." He saw his job as deciding cases, and he shunned all press attention, saying, "If you live by the press, you die by the press." The judge used to say that "there is no end to the good a person can do if he is willing not to receive the credit," and he meant it.

I did not understand the depth of Judge Bryant's aversion to the press until a friend was writing a story comparing a hot day in the summer of 1988 to even hotter weather during the 1930s. At my suggestion, she called Judge Bryant. He vividly recalled the hottest day on record but at the end of the interview informed my friend that he certainly would not agree to be quoted in the newspaper, even in a weather story.

Judge Bryant's law clerks left their one-year clerkship, typically their first job after law school, fearing they would never have another job as fulfilling. The judge treated his clerks as colleagues and taught by example, whether it was his analysis of a difficult legal problem or his recounting of a cross-examination he had performed as an attorney. His clerks learned that a successful lawyer did not have to be overbearing or aggressive and that having others underestimate your abilities could be advantageous. Many of his law clerks credit Judge Bryant for their success.

Judge Bryant loved the law. When defending the jury system, he would observe that a jury had about 600 years of accumulated experience. He believed that the law could always accommodate a fair result, and he spent countless hours studying cases in search of law that would achieve justice. Judge Bryant was at his office in the courthouse as recently as a week before he died, and he tried more cases last year, at 93, than any other judge in the district court. When asked his opinion of a judicial nominee of either party, he often responded: "He [or she] is a good lawyer; it will be okay."

When his children were young, Judge Bryant would tell them that "you are no better than anyone else, and no one is better than you." In the courtroom he treated every litigant and attorney with respect. He never claimed to be smarter than the attorneys before him, and he assumed that each had something important to say, although he would later review their arguments critically. Referring to a lawyer who had lost perspective, he remarked: "I can't understand a lawyer who makes a canyon out of a hairline crack. He digs a hole for his client."

Judge Bryant was an incurable optimist. At 93 he bought a new car so he could drive himself to work. It was this optimism that drew countless visitors to his chambers, where he often greeted them by asking: "What are you doing down here on skid row?" His friends would leave a visit with the "old man," his term for himself, fully understanding the meaning of wisdom, and feeling good about their prospects and those of mankind.

The writer, a Washington lawyer and former official in the Justice Department and the Food and Drug Administration, was Judge Bryant's law clerk in 1974-75.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company