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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Judge Bryant

From Washington Lawyer, February 2006

By Jacob A. Stein


Judge William B. Bryant’s funeral service at Howard University School of Law in November included eulogies by Vernon Jordan and Judges Henry Greene and Louis F. Oberdorfer. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan said that Judge Bryant was “the soul of the court.”

Judge Bryant rose to the top of his profession by virtue of his talent, character, and that necessary vitaminizing agent required for success, the forza del destino.

My memories of Judge Bryant go back to the late 1940s. He was one of those seeking to establish himself as a lawyer when no jobs were available to him despite his outstanding academic and military record.

He put together a frugal office arrangement of sorts on Fifth Street opposite the police court. This qualified him as a member of the Fifth Street irregulars, solo practitioners happily scratching out a living trying misdemeanor cases and occasionally springing someone in a felony case.

If we were to take a walk up Fifth Street on a spring morning in those days we would see the old and graying Columbian Building. Its tenants, solo practitioners or two-man partnerships, are on the sidewalk taking the sun on the Fifth Street Beach.

They are colorful individuals, cultivating their idiosyncrasies. Among them are bondsmen busily carrying on their economically rewarding, symbiotic relationship with the bar. Each bondsman is surrounded by his clientele, defendants to be walked to court for a 9:30 appearance. Most will plead guilty and, if their lawyer is in good form, they will escape with a fine.

The Fifth Street irregulars complete their working day around midafternoon. The rest of the day is given over to card games or an occasional trip to the racetrack. Bill Bryant spends his afternoon reading law in a friend’s office and, when a distraction is needed, winning in nine ball at the poolroom up the street.

Bill, or “WB” as he was called by friends, did what many of us did. We showed up in the police court each morning hoping that the arraignment judge would assign us a case.

Here is the way it went. A defendant arrested the night before is brought before the court. The presiding judge asks if the defendant has a lawyer. If the defendant says no, the judge appoints a lawyer from those sitting on one of the front benches. The lawyer might or might not be paid a few dollars by the client.

The pay was unimportant. What was important was the hope that we could demonstrate some ability in the courtroom, win a few cases, and wait for established lawyers and bail bondsmen to refer paying cases to us.

Bill quickly became a winner. In those days the art of cross-examination was a thinking-on-your-feet, spontaneous art. There were few documents and no discovery. Bill sensed when a witness was not telling the truth. He exposed the lie and then stopped when he made his point.

His practice was varied. It connected him with informers, witnesses, police officers, and other types that defy a label. It contributed to his lifelong interest in what may be called the human experiment.

The prosecutor’s office recognized Bill’s ability and invited him to join the U.S. attorney’s office. An assistant U.S. attorney is dressed in brief authority giving him power that he can use or abuse.

Bill followed Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78 (1935), which prescribes that a prosecutor must play fair. Getting a guilty verdict by striking foul blows to get that verdict is in itself an offense against our system of justice.

After his tour of duty as a prosecutor, he returned to private practice and reestablished himself as a leader of the criminal trial bar. Judges assigned him serious pro bono cases such as the capital case of Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957). Bill took it all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed the conviction and established the right of a criminal suspect to be brought before a judge promptly after arrest. All this kept Bill busy. He described himself as the busiest poor lawyer in Washington.

In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Bill to the United States District Court, where he distinguished himself for the next 40 years, winning the respect of all, including defendants he had sent to jail.

Many unsought honors came his way. The most recent is the naming of the courthouse annex in his honor. Judge Bryant avoided the press. His philosophy was Live by the Press and You Will Die by the Press.

When an aspiring judgeship applicant is asked in the crucial interview what judge he or she would use as a model, Judge Bryant’s name frequently heads the list.

Judge Bryant had his professional disappointments. The most significant being the 1987 enactment of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. His trips to the jail (both as a defense attorney and as a judge), and his extensive background as defense counsel and prosecutor, gave him a unique insight in determining what a fair sentence should be. The guidelines turn away this resource in favor of a cold, rigid calculation by preset numbers and, worse yet, put the prosecutor in control to determine the crimes to be charged, which in turn determines the sentence.

The result is we have the largest number of people of any civilized country passing through our jails. Changing the guidelines will not be easy. Parts of the prison system have been outsourced to private speculators who have an economic stake in preserving the guidelines.

WB, wherever you are, when the guidelines go, as go they must, the Fifth Street irregulars shall raise a glass to you. Nothing alcoholic. As you know, the AAs still hold a controlling majority.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].