A Conversation with William C. Pryor
(Appeared in Bar Report, December/January 1995)
William C. Pryor is a senior judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals. A 1954 graduate of Dartmouth and 1959 graduate of Georgetown University Law School, Pryor was admitted to the bar in 1959. His career began at the U.S. Department of Justice and included service at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Bell Telephone before his appointment to the D.C. Superior Court bench by President Johnson. He was elevated to the D.C. Court of Appeals by President Carter, where his service included one term as chief judge. A professor at the District of Columbia School of Law, Pryor also is known to play a heads-up game of basketball.
Bar Report: Was going to law school and becoming a lawyer the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition?
William C. Pryor: No, not at all. I went to Dartmouth as an undergraduate, where I was pre-med and playing basketball. I was engaged in the study of chemistry and science. No one in my family was a lawyer and I didn’t know any lawyers. So that law as a profession wasn’t something that I gave much thought to.
BR: When did that change?
WP: I graduated from Dartmouth in 1954. That was the year that
the Supreme Court handed down its famous Brown v. Board of Education decision.
I had grown up in Washington, D.C., which was a very segregated town.
We still had the old Jim Crow laws. Black people lived in a certain part
of the city, we went to segregated schools, and when we went downtown,
we went to U Street, which was the section for black people.
The social conditions were very different here in Washington than they were in New England, where I went to school. I was struck by the fact that I was living in two different worlds. That was very unsettling. With the Brown decision I could see that things were changinga lot of social questions needed to be resolved. As much as anything, I think the Brown decision got me to start thinking about becoming a lawyer. I vividly remember reading the decision and having a sense of the profound impact that law can have on society.
BR: Was it at that point that you applied to law school?
WP: No, I went into the army. I had to fulfill an ROTC obligation
from college, and was assigned to an ammunition company in France. I’d
been seeing a young woman here in Washington, and while I was overseas
I asked her to come to Paris to marry me. In June of 1955 she did just
that. So my wife, Elaine, and I were married in France.
After my tour of duty was completed, we returned to the States. My wife enrolled in graduate school at George Washington and I entered law school at Georgetown. To its credit, Georgetown was one of the first law schools in the Washington area to open its doors to people of color. I worked very hard in law school. I was highly motivated, studied hard, and did well at Georgetown. I graduated in 1959 and made the job hunting rounds with the other law students. I applied to several law firms, but even though I had put together a good academic record, I didn’t receive any job offers. I was toldboth directly and indirectlythat race was a factor.
Back then, the number of black attorneys was small and the practice area was limited. Black lawyers were pretty much confined to doing criminal law and domestic disputes like divorce. The big corporations and the prestigious law firms didn’t hire attorneys of color, and we were not being appointed in appreciable numbers as judges.
BR: Did being told that you weren’t being hired because of your race make you angry?
WP: I don’t know that "anger" is the right word. I was disappointed. But rather than get angry, my reaction was to step back and ask myself, "Okay, how am I going to overcome this?"
BR: So what did you do?
WP: After finding that the doors were closed in the private
sector, I tried government service. My first job was at the U.S. Department
of Justice. Personally, I was very fortunate because I worked for a man,
Harry Stein. At his knee, I worked mightily to improve my writing skills.
He was an excellent teacher and an excellent writer. Because it was my
first job, I was very excited. At night, I could hardly wait for morning
so that I could jump out of bed and get to work.
I’d been at Justice a little over a year when Robert Kennedy took over as the attorney general. One of the things he did was hold meetings with the staff. He’d invite 30 or 40 people into his office and everyone would sit on the floor. At the end of one of those meetings, Robert Kennedy asked, "Is there anybody here that would like to try something new?" I spoke up and said, "Yes, I would." He looked at me and asked, "What would you like to do?" I’d been writing memos on technical questions for attorneys in the field, and I said, "I’d like to see what lawyers do at the courthouse. I’d like to litigate." He took that request seriously. The next thing I knew, I was placed on loan from the Justice Department to the U.S. attorney’s office.
BR: Did you find that experience to be beneficial?
WP: Absolutely. I think the U.S. attorney’s office was the making
of me as a lawyer. I was coming from a job where I did a lot of research
and writing to a position where everything moved at an intense pace.
As a prosecutor I was presenting cases to the grand jury, trying cases
on quick notice, getting lots of experience in criminal law. It was wonderful.
I loved it. I was learning something new every day. I’d go to work thinking, "This
is what real lawyers do!"
My assignment was supposed to be for 60 days, but as it turned out I never went back to the Justice Department. I accepted a position as an assistant U.S. attorney.
BR: In November of 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated, which meant losing a president who was progressive on civil rights issues to a successor, Lyndon Johnson, who was a southerner with a checkered record on civil rights. Was that a concern for you?
WP: Yes, it was worrisome. But my worry didn’t last long. I
very quickly concluded that because he was southerner Lyndon Johnson
understood the problems of black America. His southern background and
his southern accent were not liabilities. They were beneficial. He understood
the South, and because of that he could get past the rhetoric and get
In retrospect, I feel great affection for Lyndon Johnson. He had his problems in foreign affairs, but in terms of race relations I’d have to say that Lyndon Johnson was not only a most progressive president, he was also a most effective one.
It was during the Johnson administration that the District got its first city council and took its first steps toward home rule. It was also at that point that people like me began getting appointed to the bench. When Johnson became president there was only one, or maybe two, African American judges. It was under LBJ that things began to move.
BR: How did your appointment to the bench come about?
WP: In 1967 I was working as an attorney in the Bell system
when I received a telephone call informing me that Ramsey Clark, who
was the attorney general, wanted to see me at the Justice Department.
So I went over and was showed in to the attorney general’s office, which
is hugeit’s almost as large as an auditorium. I looked around and
it took me a minute to find the attorney general because he was sitting
over in the corner at a little wooden table. The rest of the office was
I sat down across from him, and we talked for a bit. Then he said, "I’d like you to go to the U.S. attorney’s office." I reminded him that I’d worked in the U.S. attorney’s office before. He said, "Yes, I’d like you to go back. I suspect it will be a drop in pay, so go home and talk it over with your wife." Well, it was a significant drop in pay, but I decided to go ahead and do it.
Four months later, I was playing basketball one Saturday morning at the YMCA, when I got a telephone call from my wife. She told me that President Johnson wanted to see me at the White House, which was only a couple of blocks from the YMCA. She brought me a change of clothes, but she didn’t think to bring me a razor or socks. So I showered and hurried down to the White House to meet the presidentunshaven and wearing dirty white gym socks.
I was ushered in, and President Johnson looked me over. He looked at the socks, but didn’t mention them. I said, "Mr. President it is my pleasure to be here. I hope you understand that half an hour ago I was playing basketball."
President Johnson was very down to earth. It was an easy conversation, and the reason I was there was because he wanted to appoint me to be a judge. I was appointed as a judge on the D.C. Court of General Sessions, which we now know as Superior Court.
BR: Were you excited about becoming a judge?
WP: Yes, I was very excited. After my appointment was announced,
my wife and I went on vacation. We flew down to Bermuda. I had been sworn
in, but I hadn’t actually started hearing cases yet. We were at the Castle
Harbor Hotel when we heard the news that Martin Luther King had been
shot and killed.
Immediately, I called home, and my parents told me, "Washington is on fire." Then I called the courthouse. The chief judge was Harold Green, and he said, "I hate to interrupt your vacation, but I need you here in court."
We flew back to Washington, and the next morning I went to work. It was a strange time. The city really was on fire. President Johnson had called out the National Guard, and troops were patrolling the streets. My first cases as a judge involved people who were charged with rioting in the District of Columbia. We worked around the clock at the court. The situation was so volatile that there were armed guards posted outside my house.
BR: Were those cases difficult?
WP: Yes, very difficult. I grew up in a working class neighborhood
in Washington. A lot of the people brought into court during those disturbances
were people who came from a similar background. Some of them were people
that I’d gone to grade school and high school with. Some were my age,
some were older. Suddenly, I was thrust into this very tense situation
where I had to make decisions that had a direct bearing on their liveson
whether or not they went to jail and how much time they served.
Some of those defendants had done things that were clearly unlawfullike breaking and entering and looting. There had to be some kind of discipline, but at the same time, I did feel some empathy for the people brought before the court. This conflict had been percolating for a long time, and now it was coming into the open. In those cases where serious crimes had been committed I applied the appropriate legal standards, even though I did feel for the people involved. I felt it was important to make a clear distinction: rioting and looting was not an expression of civil rights, nor was it an appropriate form of protest, it was criminal conduct.
BR: As you look back at your time on Superior Court, do you have any favorite cases?
WP: Well, I had some touch with Watergate, and I presided over some cases that drew a lot of publicity where uptown lawyers were involved. But most of the work involved high volume things like landlord-tenant disputes, tort cases, contracts, criminal matters, divorce, and juvenile crimes. In handling those matters, I think I derived my greatest satisfaction from being able to get heated-up, angry people to calm down, and walk away from the court without feeling frustrated and angered. That’s not the kind of thing that makes the newspaper, but I did enjoy the human uplift derived from getting people to reach some sort of an accommodation.
BR: You mentioned the presence of "uptown lawyers" who came into court. In this media age where attorneys can become celebrities and run up multimillion dollar fees, does the presence of a famous attorney impact on the way a judge handles a case?
WP: That’s an excellent question. The truth is, if a Robert Shapiro, a Ken Mundy, or a Bob Bennett walks into the courtroom, the judge is going to be aware of it. If someone of that stature is trying a case, there are going to be more distractions because when one of those people show up, the media is not far behind. So you need to resist the temptation to play to the larger audience. What you need to do is stay calm and run the court the same way you normally would.
BR: Is the quality of the lawyering significantly better from a celebrity attorney who is billing $450 an hour?
WP: Not always. An attorney who is used to the trial court can frequently fare better than an uptown lawyer who hasn’t been immersed in the culture of the court. In a trial court you should never minimize the importance of experience. I think people who are not regular litigators probably do better in the appellate courts, where they are able to write extensive briefs that rely on very thorough preparation with lots of research and case citations. That is where the scholarly lawyers tend to shine. On the appellate level, I think they probably do a better job, but I’m not sure that’s true in a trial court.
BR: Have you noticed much change in the court since joining the bench in 1968?
WP: Some of the biggest changes I’ve observed are in juvenile court. In the old days juvenile court was the place where we dealt with teenagers who did things that were by and large of a petty naturethey stole cupcakes from a store, they got into a fist fight, or went for a joyride in somebody’s car that they had no business driving. Now we see people the same age being charged with drug trafficking and homicide. The magnitude of the crime is of a totally different caliber. The structure to deal with these more serious crimes is not in place because juvenile court is based on the idea that there is a family out there, and that the courtby working with institutions like family, church, and schoolcan help the child. But more and more we’re finding that the court can’t fulfill this role parens patriae. Juvenile court has become a place where we have to deal with extreme problems in a way that protects the public safety.
BR: Is the balance between protecting the public safety and desire for rehabilitation difficult?
WP: That’s a tension that all judges have to live with. You’re always trying to be fair to the person charged, but at the same time you are mindful that you speak for the community. If you make a mistake and release someone who then goes out and harms or kills an innocent citizen, that’s a heavy responsibility to carry. But by the same token you’ve got to realize that if you’re going to do this job, then you’re going to make mistakes. There isn’t a judge alive who isn’t going to make a mistake at one time or another. There are going to be days when you wished you’d done better.
BR: Do you have any reflections on what the courts might do to help alleviate the problems with violent crime that have hit our inner cities?
WP: We try, but I don’t think the court can do much more than it’s currently doing. The court is the end of the line. It’s where people come when they haven’t fared well in society. It’s the place you end up after you’ve been charged with a crime. I don’t think the court can resolve all social problems. We are only a part of the solution.
BR: In 1979 you were appointed to the Court of Appeals. Was that a big change for you?
WP: I do enjoy the Court of Appeals, but it’s very solitary work. The lawyers, the action, the commotionall of that disappeared when I left the trial court. A trial judge is in the courtroom every day, constantly making decisions. Whereas at the Court of Appeals, a judge might only spend one day a week in court. The difference is that the decision you make is usually a very important one, because when the Court of Appeals speaks, it is announcing the law. That part of it is challenging and demanding.
BR: You are also a law professor, is there anything in particular that you try to impart to your students?
WP: I think every teacher brings his or her experience to the
classroom. If you come from an academic background, you’ll teach in that
fashion. At the court, I operate in an environment where decisions have
to be made. I can’t sit here and contemplate abstract questions simply
because they are interesting. I’ve got to make decisionsdecisions
that will have consequences. So with my students I try to get them to
focus on the details, on the facts, on real cases. I think one function
I can perform is to get them to understand the enormous human responsibility
that a lawyer is entrusted with.
Also, I think it’s important for me to note that my students help me to be a better judge. With their eager freshness they ask questions that no one would ever raise in the courthouse. They challenge me to think in new and creative ways. One of the great things about law students is they get excited about the law. They get excited when the Supreme Court hands down a new decision or a new precedent is set. Their interest and their energy forces me to stay current. I wish every judge could be a professor because there’s no doubt in my mind that it does help you to be a better judge.