William B. Bryant

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William Benson Bryant (September 18, 1911 – November 13, 2005) was a United States federal judge and chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the first black chief federal judge.

Early life, education, and career[edit]

Born in Wetumpka, Alabama, Bryant studied political science at Howard University, graduating with an A.B. in 1932. Bryant received his law degree from Howard University School of Law, graduating first in his class, in 1939.[1] Following law school, he served as chief research assistant to Ralph Bunche, then Chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard, while Bunche worked with Gunnar Myrdal on his 1944 study of American race relations An American Dilemma.[2]

Bryant served in the United States Army during World War II, from 1943 to 1947, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Legal career[edit]

Bryant entered private practice in Washington, D.C., in 1948. At the time, the D.C. bar was still closed to African Americans.[1] When Bryant left private practice briefly to serve in the U.S. Attorney's office he was one of the first black prosecutors in federal court in Washington, D.C.[1]

Returning to private practice in 1954, he handled a number of prominent cases as a criminal defense lawyer. In 1957, he took a case to the Supreme Court, Mallory v. United States.[3] In the case, Andrew Roosevelt Mallory, 19, had confessed to rape after 7½ hours of interrogation in a police station, was convicted, and sentenced to death. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned Mallory's conviction because his arraignment was not accomplished "without unnecessary delay," violating the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.[3] The case's holding formed the basis of the "McNabb-Mallory rule," a U.S. rule of evidence superseded by the broader protections later outlined by the Supreme Court in Miranda v. Arizona. While in private practice, Bryant was also a law professor at Howard.

Judicial career[edit]

On July 12, 1965, Bryant was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, vacated by David A. Pine. Bryant was confirmed by the United States Senate on August 11, 1965, and received his commission the same day. While on the bench, Judge Bryant presided over numerous high-profile cases. In May 1972, he threw out the results of the 1969 United Mine Workers of America union elections, after allegations of fraud and the murder of losing candidate Joseph Yablonski.[4] Bryant scheduled a new election to be held in December 1972 and required that the Department of Labor oversee the election to ensure fairness. The winner of the disputed vote, W. A. Boyle, was defeated in the ensuing election and later convicted of the murder.[5]

Judge Bryant held in 1975 that Washington's height requirement for firefighters was illegal, in 1979 that the government's searches of the offices of the Church of Scientology were unconstitutional, and was the first judge to order President Richard M. Nixon to turn over his audiotapes in connection with civil lawsuits.[6] In Inmates of D.C. Jail v. Jackson, he found that conditions in D.C. jails violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," and famously complained that he had listened to corrections officials' promises of improvement "since the Big Dipper was a thimble."[6]

He served as chief judge from 1977 to 1981. He assumed senior status on January 31, 1982, and He continued to hear cases until a few months before his death in 2005, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 94.[1] In 2003, his fellow judges at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia requested that the new annex at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse be named after him, a proposal signed into law by President George W. Bush just two days before Judge Bryant's death in 2005.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Pioneering D.C. Judge Beat Racial Odds With Wisdom". Washington Post. November 15, 2005. 
  2. ^ Norton, Eleanor (2004), "Judge William B. Bryant Annex to the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Building and United States Courthouse", Congressional Record, 150, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, p. 753 
  3. ^ a b Mallory v. United States, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, retrieved September 15, 2011 
  4. ^ Hodgson v. United Mine Workers of America, 344 F. Supp. 17 (D.D.C. 1972).
  5. ^ "The Yablonski Legacy". Harvard Crimson. March 20, 1976. 
  6. ^ a b "William Bryant, Top Lawyer and Trailblazing Judge, 94, Dies". New York Times. November 16, 2005. 


Legal offices
Preceded by
David Andrew Pine
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia
Succeeded by
Thomas F. Hogan