THE FEDERAL judiciary and the legal profession in the nation's capital lost a giant when senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant died Sunday at his Washington home at age 94. It is no exaggeration to say that because of Bill Bryant's work in the courtroom as a defense counsel, federal prosecutor and judge, the lives and liberties of countless citizens in the District were greatly enriched.

Self-effacing and with a wry sense of humor, Judge Bryant was considered one of the District's top criminal lawyers of his day. Nevertheless, he often described himself as "the busiest poor lawyer in the city." His poverty was not by choice. When Mr. Bryant finished law school at Howard University at the top of his class in 1939, the best job he could find was as an elevator operator at $32 a month. The D.C. Bar Association was closed to him, as were the doors of the city's white law firms. His law practice was short on paying clients or the kind of defendants that lawyers relish representing.

But he took on the tough cases, winning victories that had impact well beyond the clients who stood next to him in court. The Supreme Court's unanimous 1957 Mallory decision threw out a defendant's confession because of a long and unnecessary delay between arrest and arraignment. Mr. Bryant handled that landmark case from trial court to the Supreme Court. The decision broadened a defendant's rights and cracked down on dreaded law-enforcement dragnets. But the real significance of Mallory was that it enabled citizens from all walks of life, especially those who were black and poor, to breathe easier in the presence of uniformed police officers in their communities.

The story of Judge Bryant's life is his remarkable odyssey through a society that at the outset judged him unfairly and harshly because of the color of his skin. A lynch mob that threatened his grandfather brought William Bryant and his parents and grandfather to the District from Alabama when he was only 1. Educated in segregated D.C. schools and Howard University's undergraduate and law schools, Mr. Bryant labored against all of the artificial barriers placed in his way to reach the top of his profession, becoming the first African American chief judge of Washington's federal court.

His legal career spanned nearly six decades, but his high standards for personal integrity, his intellectual achievement and his liberty-expanding imprint on the law will live far beyond his years. The court's current chief judge, Thomas F. Hogan, citing Judge Bryant's passion for equal justice and care for the dignity of people who appeared before him, called him "the soul of the court." To those he represented, to his fellow practitioners and lovers of the law, and to the city where he lived all of his life, William Bryant was all that and more.