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.
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.
A 1993 study found Bryant was reversed 17 percent of the time by appellate judges -- the average reversal rate for the trial court.
Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan presented the proposal to name the annex after Bryant to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) earlier this year, and they are now trying to get Congress to approve the naming this fall. One member, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), has tried to block it, with his staff pointing to a D.C. policy that buildings not be named after living people.
Norton said numerous courts around the country have been named in honor of living judges, and she said she looks forward to meeting with Inhofe in person to convince him of the wisdom of naming this building, designed by renowned architect Michael Graves, after a barrier-breaking judge.
"This is no ordinary naming," she said. "This is a truly great African American judge whose accomplishments are singular. First African American assistant U.S. attorney. First African American chief judge."
E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., the son of the jurist for whom the federal courthouse in Washington is named, also applauds the proposed annex naming. He said his father "admired Judge Bryant tremendously" and would have endorsed it, too.
"Whenever it's discussed, people brighten right up and think it's a great idea," said Prettyman, himself a former president of the D.C. Bar Association. "I'm sorry it's hit this snag. . . . If you were going to have an exception, my personal opinion is you could not have a better exception than for Judge Bryant."
William Benson Bryant is hailed as a true product of Washington. Though he was born in a rural town in Alabama, he moved to the city soon after turning 1. His grandfather, fleeing a white lynch mob, relocated the extended family here, including Bryant's father, a railroad porter, and his mother, a housewife. They all made their first home on Benning Road, which was then a dirt path hugging the eastern shore of the Anacostia River.
Bryant attended D.C. public schools when the city's black children were taught in separate and grossly substandard facilities. Still he flourished, studying politics at the city's premier black high school, Dunbar, then going on to Howard University. While working at night as an elevator operator, he studied law and met his future wife, Astaire. They were married for 60 years, until her death in 1997.
He and his law classmates -- the future civil rights movement's intellectual warriors -- worked at their dreams in the basement office of their law professor, Charles Houston. Houston promised the group, which included the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and appellate judge Spottswood Robinson, that lawyers armed with quick minds and the Constitution could end segregated schools and unjust convictions of innocent black men.
"I kind of got fascinated by that," he said. "We all did."
But when Bryant graduated first in his class from Howard's law school, there were no jobs for a black lawyer. He became a chief research assistant to Ralph Bunche, an African American diplomat who later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on a landmark study of American race relations; he then fought in World War II and was discharged from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1947.
His first step was to take the bar exam, then hang out a shingle as a criminal defense lawyer in 1948. His skills soon drew the attention of prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office, who liked him even though they kept losing cases to him, and they recommended that their boss hire him. During a job interview, Bryant made a request of George Fay, then the U.S. attorney: "Mr. Fay, if I cut the mustard in municipal court, can I go over to the big court like the other guys?"
No black prosecutor had ever practiced in the federal court -- or "big court," as it was called -- but Fay agreed. Bryant signed on in 1951 and was handling grand jury indictments in the new federal courthouse the next year.
Bryant vividly recalls a case from that time involving an apartment building caretaker who was on trial on charges of raping the babysitter of one tenant's family.
"I went for him as hard as I could," Bryant said, squaring his shoulders. "I didn't like him, and I didn't like what he did to that girl."
So the young prosecutor sought the death penalty, an option then for first-degree murder and rape. He left the courtroom after closing arguments "feeling pretty good about my case" and awaited the jury's verdict in his third-floor court office. But when a marshal later called out, "Bryant, jury's back," the judge said, "I broke out in a sweat."
He peeked anxiously into the court, saw the jury foreman mouth only the word "guilty." Bryant learned seconds later that the jurors had spared the man's life.
"I was so relieved," he said. "When you're young, you don't know anything. . . . Now I think, murder is murder, no matter who is doing it."
He left the prosecutor's office in 1954 and returned to criminal defense with fellow classmate William Gardner in an F Street law office later bulldozed for the MCI Center. They were partners in Houston, Bryant and Gardner, a legendarily powerful African American firm. Ten judges would eventually come from its ranks.
In those days, Bryant chuckled, he didn't feel so powerful. Judges who remembered his prosecution work kept appointing him to represent defendants who had no money. That was before the 1963 Supreme Court's Gideon decision requiring that indigent defendants be represented by a lawyer -- at public expense, if necessary.
"The judge would say, 'Mr. So and So, you say you don't have any money to hire an attorney?" Bryant recalled. " 'Well, then, the court appoints Mr. Bryant to represent you.' "
Some paid $25 or $50. Some paid nothing.
"There were weeks we paid the help and split the little bit left over for our groceries," he said.
Bill Schultz, Bryant's former law clerk, said Bryant took the cases "out of this sense of obligation to the court and legal system. He was very aware of discrimination, and he always fought for the criminal defendants."
At the time, blacks were barred from the D.C. Bar Association and its law library. Bryant went in anyway, and the black librarian let him.
One of his pro bono clients was Andrew Roosevelt Mallory, a 19-year-old who confessed to a rape after an eight-hour interrogation in a police station. Mallory was convicted and sent to death row. Defending Mallory's rights, a case Bryant took all the way to the Supreme Court in 1957, made him both nervous and famous.
He said he fretted constantly about his client facing the electric chair during the two years the case dragged on. "You talk about worried," he said. "It's something I can't forget."
But the Supreme Court agreed with Bryant that a man accused of a crime is entitled to be taken promptly before a magistrate to hear the charges against him. The court overturned Mallory's conviction and handed down a landmark decision on defendants' rights.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, a longtime fan of Bryant's, said Bryant's legal talents are on display every day in his courtroom, but lawyers are still taken aback by his factual resolve and clear logic when hearing an audiotape recording of his Supreme Court argument in the Mallory case.
"He's clearly a terrific lawyer, but he's mostly a terrific human being," Friedman said. "He sees the best in people, and he really cares about what happens to people."
Bryant remembers that when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him to be a judge, he felt elated, confident he had earned his opportunity. But Bryant said a different feeling came over him the day he donned the robes.
"I was sworn in in the morning that day, and Oliver Gasch was sworn in that afternoon," Bryant recalled. "I told Oliver, 'You know, I've been a lawyer for many years, but putting on this robe, I don't feel so sure. This is a serious responsibility. ' "
Gasch smiled: "Bill, I don't think it's going to be that hard for you. You know right from wrong."
Bryant oversaw some famous cases, and he freely shared his thoughts when he thought something was wrong.
After presiding over the 1981 trial of Richard Kelly, a Republican congressman caught on videotape taking money from federal agents in a sting operation, Bryant complained that the FBI had set an "outrageous" trap for the Florida representative by stuffing cash in his pocket after he'd refused the bribe several times. He set aside Kelly's conviction.
"The investigation . . . has an odor to it that is absolutely repulsive," Bryant said then. "It stinks."
In handling the longest-running case in the court's history, a 25-year-old case about inhumane and filthy conditions in the D.C. jail, the judge chastised city leaders in 1995. He said he had been listening to their broken promises to fix the problems "since the Big Dipper was a thimble."
In weighing the case of a group of black farmers with similar discrimination complaints against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000, Bryant warned a government lawyer that his argument against a class-action discrimination suit wasn't working: "Either you're dense or I'm dense," he said.
Schultz said the judge simply trusted the combination of facts and the law.
"He always said, 'Don't fight the facts,' " Schultz said. "He thought most of the time the law would end up in the right place."
Bryant acknowledges it's hard sometimes to see lawyers struggle to make their arguments when they have the law and the facts on their side.
"A judge has a stationary gun, and he's looking through the sights," he said. "Unless the lawyer brings the case into the bull's-eye, the judge can't pull the trigger. Good lawyers bring the case into the sights."
Bryant said he was preceded by many great lawyers, which is why the new plan to put his name on a piece of the courthouse gives him conflicting feelings.
"I was flattered, but I thought they shouldn't have done it," Bryant said. "There are so many people who were really giants. I stand on their shoulders."