William Benson Bryant

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Bryant, William Benson



A passionate believer in the power of the law to correct injustice, William Benson Bryant was the first African American to be appointed a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He served on the federal bench for 40 years, earning a reputation as one of the country's most respected jurists.

A native of Wetumpka, Alabama, Bryant moved with his family to Washington, DC, when he was a year old, after his grandfather had fled a lynch mob. His father was a railroad porter and his mother stayed at home to raise the family. Though Bryant was forced to attend the inferior and racially segregated public schools of the city, he excelled academically and went on to attend Howard University, working nights as an elevator operator. Graduating in 1932, he continued at Howard's law school, graduating first in his class in 1936.

A Howard law professor, Charles Houston, inspired Bryant and many of his classmates—including the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—to use their legal training to fight the injustices of racism. By invoking the U.S. Constitution, Houston said, lawyers could challenge laws that allowed segregation or that made it impossible for black defendants in criminal cases to receive fair trials. But when Bryant finished law school, he discovered that there were no jobs in Washington for black lawyers. He went to work for Ralph Bunche, an African American in the diplomatic service, as a research assistant on a study about race in the United States.

World War II interrupted Bryant's career; he served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1947. Upon his discharge, he passed the D.C. bar exam and began working as a criminal defense lawyer in 1948. He soon developed a reputation for brilliant legal work; in fact, according to a Washington Post article by Carol Leonnig, even the prosecuting attorneys who kept losing cases against him liked him so much that they recommended him for a job in the prosecutor's office. In 1951, on the strength of his outstanding performance as a prosecutor in the municipal courts, Bryant was allowed to bring cases in the federal court—the first black prosecutor to do so.

In 1954 Bryant returned to defense work, becoming a partner in Houston, Bryant and Gardner, a firm of African-American lawyers that, as Leonnig put it, became "legendary." Among Bryant's most important cases was Mallory v. United States, which he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1957. His client, 19-year-old Andrew Roosevelt Mallory, had been convicted in Federal District Court of rape and sentenced to death after having confessed to the crime following an eight-hour interrogation. But, as Bryant showed, Mallory had been deprived of his right to be brought before a magistrate without unnecessary delay after his arrest. The Court, in a unanimous verdict, reversed Mallory's conviction and ruled that any confession that police obtained during an unnecessary delay between arrest and arraignment could not be used as evidence. The landmark case was chosen by a committee of legal scholars appointed by the Supreme Court Historical Society as one of the most significant arguments before the Court from 1955 to 1993.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed Bryant to the bench in 1965. Among the many significant cases over which he presided was one in which he ruled that conditions in the city of Washington's jails were so bad that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Constitution. For several years he supervised conditions at the jails, at one point insisting that officials make their progress reports to him under oath. In 1974 Bryant was the first judge to order President Richard Nixon to make his audiotapes available to lawyers in civil lawsuits; this order was in effect voided by the Supreme Court in 1982, when it ruled that incumbent presidents could not be sued in matters relating to their government duties.

In 1976 Bryant ruled that the National Football League deprived players of negotiation rights through its annual college draft system; this decision pushed the NFL to reach an agreement with the players' union about implementing the system. Bryant threw out the conviction of Florida congressman Richard Kelly in connection with the Abscam government bribery investigation in 1981, insisting that the FBI sting operation that videotaped Kelly taking money was an "outrageous trap;" the undercover agents stuffed Kelly's pockets with money after he had repeatedly refused to take the bribe.

According to Leonnig, Bryant explained that he had felt elated at the news that he had been appointed a judge, but on the day that he was sworn in he felt uneasy. He confided to a friend that was worried about the "serious responsibility" of the job. But his friend answered, "Bill, I don't think it's going to be that hard for you. You know right from wrong." As William B. Schultz, a lawyer and former law clerk for Bryant, explained to Leonnig, "Bryant always said ‘Don't fight the facts.’ He thought most of the time the law would end up in the right place."

Though he had to use a walker in his last years, Bryant continued to drive himself to work at the courthouse, where he joked that he felt like part of the woodwork because he had been there so long. He continued to work until only a week before his death at age 94. The previous year, at age 93, he heard more cases than any other judge in the district court. He was loved for his courtesy and modesty. As Schultz noted in an obituary of Bryant published in the Washington Post, the judge treated every lawyer and litigant with respect. "He never claimed to be smarter than the attorneys before him, and he assumed that each had something important to say."

In his interview with Leonnig after 40 years on the bench, Bryant held up a well-worn copy of the Constitution. "Without lawyers," he said, this is just a piece of paper. "If it weren't for lawyers, I'd still be three-fifths of a man…. If it weren't for lawyers, you still wouldn't be able to vote." The most important professions, he added, were lawyer and teacher.

In 2004, Bryant's fellow judges unanimously recommended that the nine-courtroom annex to the federal courthouse, then under construction, be named after him, despite a D.C. policy against naming buildings after people who are still alive. The William B. Bryant Courthouse Annex opened to the public in October 2005.

At a Glance …

Born on September 18, 1911, in Wetumpka, AL; died on November 14, 2005, Washington, DC; married Astaire A. Gonzalez; children: Astaire, William B. Education: Howard University, AB, 1932, Howard University, LLB, 1936.


District of Columbia Assistant U.S. attorney, 1951-1954; Houston, Bryant & Gardner, partner, 1954-65; District of Columbia, U.S. District Judge, 1965-2005, chief judge, 1977-1981; Howard University School of Law, instructor.



Jet, December 5, 2005.

San Diego Union Tribune, November 20, 2005.

Washington Post, September 16, 2004, p. DZ10; November 18, 2005, p. A23.


"Significant Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court, 1955-1993." The Supreme Court Historical Society, www.supremecourthistory.org/03_how/subs_links/03_c.html (March 2, 2007).

"Legendary Judge William Bryant Dead at 94," BET, www.bet.com/News/judgebryantdies.htm (February 26, 2007).

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William Benson Bryant is a federal judge whose decisions influenced the outcomes of several famous legal battles of the 1970s.

Bryant was born September 18, 1911, in Wetumpka, Alabama. He moved to Washington, D.C., with his family when he was a child and attended District of Columbia public schools. He graduated from Howard University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1932, and went on to earn his bachelor of laws degree from Howard University Law School in 1936. After law school, Bryant worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and later for the Bureau of Intelligence at the Office of War Information. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel before his discharge in 1947.

Bryant started a law practice in Washington, D.C., in 1948. He left private practice to become an assistant in the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1951 to 1954. After resigning that post, he joined the law firm of Houston, Bryant, and Gardner, in Washington, D.C., where he worked from 1954 to 1965. As a criminal defense attorney, Bryant argued and won the Supreme Court case of Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449, 77 S. Ct. 1356 (1957). Following Mallory, police could no longer use confessions of criminal defendants that were secured during long and unnecessary delays between arrest and arraignment.

Bryant became a law professor at Howard University in 1965, the same year President lyndon b. johnson appointed him to the federal bench. With his appointment, Bryant became the first African American to serve as a judge at the federal district court level.

During his tenure on the bench, Bryant presided over several high-profile trials. In May 1972, he overturned the election of W. A. ("Tony") Boyle as president of the United Mine Workers (Hodgson v. United Mine Workers of America, 344 F. Supp. 17 [D.D.C.]). Boyle's election was challenged by supporters of his opponent, Joseph A. Yablonski, who had been found murdered along with his wife and daughter three weeks after he lost the 1969 election to Boyle. Bryant found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing by Boyle and his supporters to nullify the election. He ordered the union to hold another election, to be conducted under court supervision. Boyle was subsequently defeated by Arnold Miller, a Yablonski supporter, and in 1974, was convicted of murder for having ordered Yablonski's killing.

"I do not believe that testing virtue is a function of law enforcement … If, after an illegal offer is made, the subject rejects it … the government cannot press on."
William Benson Bryant

Bryant also made several key decisions regarding participants in the scandals that devastated the administration of President richard m. nixon. In April 1974, he sentenced Herbert L. Porter, a former aide in Nixon's reelection campaign, to 15 months in prison for lying to the federal bureau of investigation (FBI) during its investigation of the watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. In November 1974, he ordered White House counsel Philip W. Bucher to produce audiotapes of Oval Office meetings that took place May 1–5, 1971. The order was part of a class action suit brought against the U.S. government on

behalf of eight hundred antiwar protesters. The plaintiffs alleged that government officials violated their civil liberties and suspended due process when they ordered the arrest of nearly 12,000 protesters who marched on the White House on May 1. Most of the arrests in the socalled Mayday Rally were later found to be unlawful.

In 1982, after a long and distinguished career on the federal bench, Bryant attained the rank of senior judge. One of his best-known decisions since then was his 1989 ruling upholding a federal bankruptcy judge's decision in a case involving the u.s. justice department. The case centered on INSLAW, a software company that had contracted with the department to provide a case-management software program. INSLAW claimed that the department was using the software even though it had not paid for it—a situation that had forced the company into bankruptcy. A federal bankruptcy judge agreed and ordered the Justice Department to pay INSLAW $8 million in damages. Bryant upheld this ruling on appeal; the ruling was also upheld by higher courts (although the Justice Department did get the $8 million judgment set aside).

In the 2000s, Bryant continued to preside over noteworthy cases. In March 2003, he issued a ruling that ended the U.S. District Court's 32-year oversight of the D.C. jail. Overcrowding, building safety issues, and problems with the quality of medical services for inmates led to the filing of two cases that compelled the court to assume oversight in the 1970s: Campbell v. McGruder, 416 F.Supp. 106 (D.D.C., Nov. 5, 1975) (No. CIV. 1462-71; 2) and Inmates of D.C. Jail v. Jackson, 416 F.Supp. 119 (D.D.C. May 24, 1976) (No. CIV. 75-1668). The D.C. Department of Corrections worked to reverse problems at the jail by launching comprehensive programs to improve environmental and safety conditions and raise the standards of medical and mental health care services. By 2002, conditions at the jail had improved significantly, and its medical and psychiatric services had achieved national accreditation. Bryant's ruling, noted D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, was proof that the jail had passed "the toughest muster of the federal court system."

further readings

Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, eds. 1989. The Negro Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research.

Spradling, Mary M., ed. 1980. In Black and White. Detroit: Gale Research.

Weisberg, Jacob. 1990. "Computer Trouble: Another Fine Meese Mess." New Republic (September 10).