William Benson Bryant a softspoken liberal and widely respected jurist who is described in glowing personal terms by even his chief judge of the U.S. District Court here.
Bryant is the first black to hold that position here, and will be one of four blacks across the U.S. to head a trial-level federal court.
As chief judge, Bryant, 65, will be the chief administrative officer of the District Court. He succeds Judge William B. Jones, who is retiring from full-time judicial work on his 70th birthday today.
The chief judgeship of the federal court is based on seniority in office, and Bryant takes the post after having been on the federal bench for more than 11 years. He was appointed by President Johnson in 1955.
In many ways, the chief judgeship of the federal court here makes a judge no different in rank than his counterparts. However, the last three chief judges have left heir own unique marks on the position and Judge Bryant said he hopes to do the same.
U.S. Distirct Judge John J. Sirica used the chief judge's position to assign himself to the Watergate cases in 1972.
His successor, Judge George L. Hart Jr., used his term as chief judge to institute management reforms in the handling of cases, renovate and redecorate the court building for its first time in 25 years, reform jury selection procedures, and generally crack an administrative whip.
Jones, a tough sentencer, led a crackdown on so-called white collar criminals who entered guilty pleas before him, invariably sending them to prison for their crimes of fraud, embezzlement and deceit. Jones, as chief judge, received all guilty pleas in cases where the defendant entered his plea before indictment.
Chief Judge Bryant, generally a lenient sentencer, will no longer receive all preindictment pleas as did his predecessors. In a move approved by Bryant and his fellow judges two weeks ago, those pre-indictment cases will be assigned at random - as are all other criminal cases - to remove any vestiges of "judge-shopping."
Bryant hopes, however, that as chief judge he can lead a reassessment of the court's and society view toward the treatment of drug users.
Bryant feels strongly that all drug possession cases - including those involving heroin - should be taken out of the criminal context. He said he believes addicts should be maintained on whatever drugs to which they are addicted - as is done is England - and that the profit should be taken out of the illicit drug market.
The results, Bryant believes, would be a drastic drop in crime. An addict who must have money to buy a fix becomes a "crime machine," and steals and robs only to support his habit, Bryant said in an interview.
Although Bryant has never before spoken publicly about his views on drugs, he said he believes the White House has created an atmosphere in which such views will be taken seriously.
Illegal drug peddling would decline drastically if drugs were available by government prescription, he added.
Bryant, famous in the courthouse for his folksy aphorisms, said "If we don't want the banana man to sell bananas, we take the profit out of selling bananas."
Bryant's views on drugs view on drugs were expressed in an interview that began in his sixth-floor office at the federal courthouse, continued during hourlong brisk walk up Capitol Hill and around the U.S. Capitol and ended back in his chambers.
A short and wiry man with a gray moustache, Bryant is fervent in his belief "in the dignity of the human being" and said he considers the administration of justice the most important business the government is engaged in.
"There should not only bejustice and the appearance of justice," Bryant said, "but everyone in the process must have the feeling that justice has been done." Bryant's courtroom has an air of informality, with the judge often interjecting himself into the proceeding to make sure the nonlawyers involved in the suit or criminal case know what is going on.
Bryant, who was clearly regarded as one of the city's top criminal defense attorneys before being named to the bench, said his appointment to a federal judgeship came as a total surprise to him. He had won the famous Mallory case in the Supreme Court, which required police to present criminal suspects quickly to a magistrate after arrest, and was appointed to numerous criminal cases to defend clients who were too poor to pay.
He said he was the "busiest poor lawyer in the city," and some of his acquaintances say he may be one of the few attorneys ever to take a significant pay increase by taking a federal judgeship.
In one of the unique "strange bedfellows" situations in Washington, Bryant also was appointed by Judge Hart in 1960 to administer the estate of local religious leader Daddy Grace. Hart, generally known as the most conservative member of the federal court here, thus became the judge who appointed the first black lawyer to administer a major estate.
Hart, who later swore in Bryant as a federal judge, said he still has the highest regard and respect for Bryant, although they are poles apart philosophically.
In his years on the bench, Bryant has been involved in numerous major, decisions. He set aside the United Mine Workers election that put disputed UMW leader W.A. (Tony) Boyle in office, gave federal prisoners the right to quiz parole board officials on the reasons they were denied parole, became the first federal judge to order former President Nixon to produce his White House tapes in a civil suit, and presided over the trial that resulted in a $12 million jury verdict for about 1,000 persons who were arrested in a Mayday, 1971, antiwar demonstration at the U.S. Capitol.
Bryant's two most famous cases in the last two years have been his ruling that conditions at the D.C. jail constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" for persons held there, and his ruling that the professional football draft was illegal.
In criminal cases, Bryant is generally regarded as prodefense in his views. Some prosecutors complain that Bryant sometimes refuses to let on as much as one-third of their admissible evidence in criminal cases, and makes it difficult for them to present as good a case as they might against a defendant.
However, even those prosecutors acknowledge that Bryant is fair in his treatment of the government lawyers and view his leniency as an example of his inherent good nature.
Another chief complaint of Bryant is his slowness in handling cases, a trait that gives him the distinction of having the worst case backlog of any federal judge here.
Bryant, who keeps long hours and has few outside interests, concedes his slowness but attributes that to his attempt to listen to all sides of an argument and having to make tough decisions in complex legal situations.
Bryant gets deeply involved in the cases that are before him, according to his acquaintances, and agonizes over his decisions for days or weeks. He is widely regarded as one of the three top judges on the court here.
On a walk around the Capitol, for example, he discussed in detail the maintenance of the Capitol grounds - basing his discussion on facts he had learned about the U.S. Park Service's operations in a civil suit he had handled a few years back.
Generally a loner at the courthouse, he rarely participates in the lunchroom camaraderie of some of his fellow judges in their dining room. People say they often see him eating alone, poring over legal briefs or discussing cases with his law clerk there.
Bryant came to Washington in 1912 with his family when he was less than a year old. His family had fled from Alabama to escape a white lynch mob. He grew up on Benning Road NE in what was then still a largely rural community. His father and two uncles worked for the federal government as messengers, "about the only job black people got in those days."
Bryant went to Dunbar High School, where he excelled in history and civics; Howard University, where he studied political science as a pretege of government professor Ralph Bunche, and Howard University law, where he sometimes clashed with Charles Hamilton Houston, the scholarly lawyer he idolized.
After graduating at the top of his law school class, he could get a job only as a elevator operator in an apartment building. He later held various low-level jobs, worked with Bunche on a study of the Negro in American political life - which became part of the Gunnar Myrdal treatise, "An American Dilemma," and then joined the Office of War Information.
After leaving the Army, Bryant decided to begin practicing law in D.C. and took a refresher course before opening his practice in 1948. He then became an assistant U.S. attorney before joining the firm of Houston, Bryant and Gardner, which was at the time the premier balck law firm in the city.
He is married to the former Astaire A. Gonzalez, and they have two children. Their daughter, Penny, is a teacher is the Montgomery County school system and their son, William Jr., is a law school graduate of George Washington Universityand now lives in Hawaii.