Bryant, William Benson

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Bryant, William Benson

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).