Wright, Bruce McMarion 1918–

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Bruce McMarion Wright 1918

New York State Supreme Court justice, author

At a Glance

Selected writings


Black judges in this country are a very lonely caucus, New York State Supreme Court justice Bruce McMarion Wright told Les Payne in Essence. A highly controversial figure dubbed Turn-Em-Loose Bruce when he sat on the bench of New York Citys criminal court, Wright has devoted his life to delineating the two systems of justice he believes exist in the United Statesone for the white and privileged, and another for people of color and the poor. His best-selling book Black Robes, White Justice addresses this issue. Payne said of Wright, who is also a poet and decorated war veteran, He is both praised and damned as a keen analyzer of judicial practices, especially as they touch the lives of African-Americans who come before the bar.

Wright was born December 19, 1918, in Princeton, New Jersey. A bright student, he entered Virginia State University in 1936. But when he devised a pun that read Religion Weak, instead of Religion Week, for a headline in the school newspaperthe editorial adjustment an early indication of his maverick natureWright was expelled. He applied to Princeton University, from which he won a scholarship in 1939. But, according to Wright, he was discouraged from attending by a note from the dean of admissions. Wright says the note acknowledged that the school did not practice any form of discrimination but stipulated that Wright might feel uncomfortable at Princeton, where there were no black students.

Eventually enrolled at Lincoln University, Wright chose to become a doctor. He was unable, however, to make an incision on an anesthetized rabbit during a premedical course and thus decided to study law. He graduated from college in 1942 and promptly entered the U.S. Army. Serving as a private in the 26th infantry regiment, Wright was awarded several medals for valor in World War II, including the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He left the service in 1946. According to Wright, he met poet and future first president of Senegal Leopold Senghor while AWOL from the army in Paris in the months following World War II. I was introduced to him as an American poet, Wright recounted to Payne; Wrights book of poems From the Shaken Tower had been edited by acclaimed African-American writer Langston Hughes and published in 1944. Wright revealed to Payne, All I ever wanted to be in life was a poet.

At a Glance

Born December 19, 1918, in Princeton, NJ; son of Bruce Alleyne Summers (a baker) and A. Louise (Thigpen) Wright; married Patricia Fonville (fourth marriage), December 26, 1986; children: Geoffrey D. S., Keith L. T., Alexis, Bruce C.T., Patrick, Tiffany. Education: Lincoln University, B.A., 1942; New York University Law School, LL.B., 1950.

Judge, author, and poet. Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn (law firm), New York City, clerk, c. 1950; Human Resources Administration, New York City, general counsel, 1967-70; New York City criminal court judge, 1970-74 and 1978-79, civil court judge, 1974-78 and 1980-82; Supreme Court of New York, justice, 1983. Cofounder, National Conference of Black Lawyers; member of the board, Urban League of Greater New York, 1952-56, and Inner City Round Table for Youth, 1976; member of advisory board, Fortune Society, 1971. Military service: U.S. Army, 1942-1946; served as private, 26th infantry regiment.

Awards: Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Conspicuous Service Cross, all from World War II; honorary LL.D., Lincoln University, 1973; named judge of the year, National Bar Association, 1975.

Addresses: Home 409 Edgecombe Ave., New York, NY 10032. Office Justice, Supreme Court of New York, 60 Centre St., New York, NY 10007.

Upon his return to the U.S. in 1946, Wright enrolled at New York University to continue his law studies. For four years he worked during the day and took courses at night. During his last year of law school, Wright accepted a legal clerkship at the prestigious New York City law firm Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn. When Wright passed the bar examination in 1950, he consulted the managing partner about his future with the company. According to Wright, he was apologetically dissuaded from considering further prospects with the firm. Wright went on to work in estates, appeals, and some civil rights cases at several black law firms in the years that followed. In 1967 he began working for New York Citys Human Resources Administration.

Wright was appointed to New York Citys criminal court in 1970 by then-Mayor John V. Lindsay. In that post, Wright was markedly outspoken on civil rights issues. And in numerous public speeches, he defended his belief that bail should not be a means of detaining the accused until trial, but a way to ensure the accuseds appearance in court. His position was unpopular with the New York City police department; when in the early 1970s Wright set bail at $5,000 for a man accused of shooting a policeman, a former head of the Patrolmans Benevolent Association called Wright one of the best friends criminals ever had. Wright stated in People: The Eighth Amendment says bail should not be excessive. So what is excessive? If you come into my court and you have one penny, and my bail is two cents, thats excessive. If [the accused] has roots in the community, there is no high bail. Their families and friends live in the community, and they stay for that reason.

Wright was reassigned to civil court in 1974, but he was reinstated to the criminal courtroom in 1978. Investigated by the New York City Appellate Divisions Judiciary Relations Committee several times, allegations of misconduct over the years have failed to deter him. Little official censure has actually taken place, though in 1975 Wright was admonished for treating a policeman too roughly for having drawn his gun on a man accused of a traffic violation. In fact, studies by the New York Bar Association revealed that Wrights low bail pronouncements resulted in no fewer appearances of defendants in court than had the higher bails posted by his fellow judges. Despite the fact that Im known as a bleeding heart, Wright told People I look with horror on burglaries, assaults, and the like. Ive been burglarized seven times myself. One day I came home and the entire wall was broken downit looked like a bomb had hit the place.

Wright was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in 1983. Four years later he penned his book Black Robes, White Justice. New York Review of Books contributor Andrew Hacker was critical of Wrights premise, stating: Wright does not explain just how he came to conclude that resentment against white society accounts for blacks crimes against whites; and he wholly ignores crimes committed within black communities. Wright states in his book, as reported by Hacker, that black defendants often [receive] much harsher sentences than whites convicted of identical crimes. Though Hacker saw truth in Wrights contention, admitting, There is such a double standard, he found fault with the justice for merely relying on his observations while on the bench and not presenting statistical evidence to support his claim. Despite this critics challenge, Black Robes, White Justice was a best-seller.

Appraising the American judicial system, Wright disclosed in Essence, We have to change the thinking of white America. In my view, Black Americans have been heroic in trying to civilize white Americans. And weve tried to do it with their own Constitution, and its amendments. Weve tried to explain to white people the true meaning of the Constitution.

Selected writings

From the Shaken Tower (poetry), edited by Langston Hughes, [England], 1944.

(With Hughes and others) Lincoln University Poets (poetry anthology), 1954.

Repetitions (poetry), 1980.

Black Robes, White Justice, Lyle Stuart, 1987.


Essence, November 1991.

New York Review of Books, March 3, 1988.

New York Times Biographical Service, April 1979.

People, April 17, 1978.

Marjorie Burgess

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