D.C. Judge's Humility, Humor Recalled

Bryant's daughter, Astaire A. Bryant, left, and grandson Vaughn Bryant Stebbins are led from the chapel by funeral director Breta Francis after the service for the pioneering federal judge.
Bryant's daughter, Astaire A. Bryant, left, and grandson Vaughn Bryant Stebbins are led from the chapel by funeral director Breta Francis after the service for the pioneering federal judge. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005

The District's legal world yesterday mourned the death of William B. Bryant, the first black chief judge of Washington's federal court, praising him for overcoming racial barriers as he scaled the judicial ranks without losing the modesty that defined his character.

At a funeral as understated and dignified as the judge himself, friends and associates described Bryant as an unrelenting champion of the law whose sense of fairness, work ethic and homespun wit left a lasting impression on those who went through his court.

"Something vast and noble has passed from among us," said Vernon E. Jordan Jr., speaking from a podium overlooking Bryant's simple cherry wood coffin and hundreds of judges, lawyers and former law clerks in Dunbarton Chapel at Howard University's law school.

Bryant, 94, who died Sunday at his home in Washington, until recently presided over cases as a senior U.S. district judge, a position that culminated a career that began in 1939 when he graduated at the top of his Howard law school class.

Over the years, Bryant assembled a long list of achievements, becoming the District's first black federal prosecutor and, as a criminal defense lawyer, winning a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court on defendants' rights. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Bryant to the U.S. District Court in 1965. Twelve years later, Bryant became the court's first black chief judge.

Yet, in recounting a life that began in 1911 in rural Alabama, which Bryant's family fled after a mob tried to lynch his grandfather, the judge's colleagues focused on his humility, his devotion to his wife, Astaire, whose grave he visited daily after she died in 1997, and his one-liners.

"Old age wasn't made for sissies," U.S. District Court Senior Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer quoted Bryant as telling him as the chapel erupted in laughter.

Oberdorfer also recalled the judge's advice to a colleague on legal strategy: "Don't go hunting for bear and give the bear the gun." Then there was the time that an appellate judge with whom Bryant rarely agreed had affirmed one of his rulings. "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day," he said.

Thomas F. Hogan, current chief judge of the federal court, said Bryant had endured segregation and racism "all without bitterness, all without rancor."

"His optimism never ceased," Hogan said, noting that Bryant had recently purchased a new Subaru "probably with an extended warranty."

"He was the soul of our court, and we will miss him," Hogan said, his voice growing thin.

Henry Greene, a senior D.C. Superior Court judge and a former clerk to Bryant, was the third jurist who spoke during the two-hour service, which included a rendition of "Ave Maria" and readings from the Old and New testaments.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who with others led a successful effort to name a courthouse annex in Bryant's honor, was among the mourners, including former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D), the dean of Howard's law school; and former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr.

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the Supreme Court, attended a viewing Thursday night.

In his eulogy, Jordan, a prominent Washington lawyer and a longtime friend and adviser to former president Bill Clinton, said Bryant disdained special attention, even when he went to the doctor and the receptionist tried to put him ahead of other patients.

"The judge always responded, 'I'll wait my turn,' " Jordan said. "And he always did."

When Bryant turned 90, Jordan said he struggled to persuade the judge to allow him to throw a party. Bryant finally agreed but only under the condition that no women be invited.

Why? Jordan asked. Because, the judge replied, his wife, who had died, could not be there.

"She was the love of his life," Jordan said.

Jordan, recalling his appearances before a grand jury during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said the phone at his home would ring each night after he returned, and he would pick it up to hear his friend's familiar voice.

"You all right, boy? You all right?" Bryant would ask.

Two weeks ago, Jordan said, he visited the judge at his office, and they talked about the state of the world, as well as the courtroom annex that would bear Bryant's name.

Bryant, he said, told him that he was "honored and embarrassed" by the designation.

"You've earned the right. You deserve the honor," Jordan recalled saying. The judge, he said, "gave me a dismissive yet acquiescent smile."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company