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Thomas Jefferson once wrote to John Adams that there is “a natural aristocracy,” based not upon birth but upon “virtue and talents.” William Bryant was a member of that aristocracy. Senior U.S. District Judge Bryant, who died last week at the age of 94, had in abundance all the ingredients of judicial greatness as Justice Louis Brandeis once described them � “brains, rectitude, singleness of purpose, and time.” I first met Bill Bryant 44 years ago when I was a young assistant U.S. attorney working behind the counter in the old Police Court building at Fifth and E streets Northwest. He was one of the pre-eminent criminal defense attorneys in Washington, D.C., and appeared frequently in the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of his clients. A decade earlier he himself had been a prosecutor. And now, as new assistants cut their teeth handling the daily calendar of cases, he would subject them to an exacting scrutiny. I must have passed the test because we became firm friends, and that friendship lasted to the end of his life. Two weeks ago, I wrote him a letter congratulating him that, by act of Congress, the new annex to the D.C. federal courthouse is to be named for him. I called it a “richly deserved honor.” I knew he was too modest to make any such claim for himself, but I was under no such inhibition. THE BEST ADVICE Judge Bryant sat on the federal trial bench in the District from 1965 to 2005, including four years as chief, and he was a great judge. But before that, Bill Bryant was a great lawyer. Some attorneys, even of supposed eminence, view themselves as mouthpieces in the literal sense, bound to carry out the wishes of a client without interposing their own judgment. Not Bill Bryant. He told me once about a first-degree murder case he defended, at a time when the District had a mandatory death sentence for such cases, a sentence that was frequently carried out. He sweated blood with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and finally got them to accept a plea to second-degree murder, saving his client from death. On the day appointed for the plea, he went to meet with his client in the cellblock. And his client said, “I ain’t pleading. I want justice.” Bryant replied: “Man, you don’t want justice. If you get justice, you’re going to the electric chair. You want mercy, and I got it for you. Now get your rear end [he did not say rear end] in there and plead guilty.” And that, I believe, expresses the duty of a lawyer to a client better than I have heard it from anyone else. SAMOA ON THE STAND Over the years, I appeared before Judge Bryant many times. I loved arguing cases in his courtroom, as did everyone else I know at the trial bar. He presided with dignity and respect for all � jurors, witnesses, court personnel, and lawyers alike. His unfailing sense of fairness was legendary. One particularly memorable case that I tried before him in the late 1970s presented the question of whether there was a constitutional right to jury trial in criminal cases in the courts of American Samoa, a territory of the United States. To my surprise, I found that the Supreme Court had never definitively decided the famous old question: Does the Constitution follow the flag? I managed to bring and keep the suit in the U.S. District Court here by suing the secretary of the Interior, who was in charge of the territories, including American Samoa. The Department of Justice pulled out all the stops. An array of Samoan chiefs came to court in full regalia to testify. All of them swore that it was unthinkable to have a jury system in Samoa � it just would not work. But Judge Bryant, through his own questioning, realized that what was truly at stake was the dominance of the old ruling class of chiefs, who were increasingly being challenged by the younger members of Samoan society. For this younger generation, trial by jury symbolized the right to participate in popular government. Judge Bryant quickly perceived the similarities between the changes taking place in American Samoa and the early civil rights movement in the United States. He probed deeply into such matters as who controlled the police, who made the prosecutorial decisions, who were the judges, and how independent were they of the chieftain system. It was a joy to see the old trial lawyer at work. The high point of the trial was the appearance of anthropologist Margaret Mead as the government’s star witness. She had become famous with the publication of her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, in 1928 and still carried in her head an image of the Samoans as helpless children incapable of self-government and lucky to be ruled by the chiefs. Her outlook was maternalistic and colonialist in the extreme. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that she had spent only an hour in American Samoa since the 1920s, and that was in the airport. Mead gave Judge Bryant fits as a witness, delivering long, garrulous, dogmatic lectures, interrupting him, impervious to the impact she was having. He handled her with his customary tact and politeness, but even he was finally driven in exasperation to demand, “Dr. Mead, will you just answer the questions!” He wrote a splendid opinion holding that the Sixth Amendment right to jury trial applied in American Samoa. (For those interested, the decision is reported as King v. Andrus, 452 F. Supp. 11 (D.D.C. 1977).) The case seemed to be headed straight for the Supreme Court � until our friends in the Justice Department filed their notice of appeal one day late. So Judge Bryant’s decision stood and still stands. As far as I know, American Samoa has survived the shock. �I Contain Multitudes’ Judge Bryant provided an oral history for a D.C. Circuit project. I was privileged to take that history and to listen and learn a lot more about his life and times. He embodied in his own person many of the complexities and nuances of American life, especially in the area of race relations. His great-grandfather had been a captain in the Confederate army, who conducted a liaison with a black woman, acknowledged the son who was the product of that relationship, and set him up as a storekeeper in a village in Alabama. That son was the judge’s grandfather, and he married a Creek Indian woman. When I think about Judge Bryant’s ancestry, I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s line: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Bill Bryant was born in rural Alabama in 1911. He didn’t stay long. His grandfather stood up against the nightriders and was advised to leave the state in a hurry. The family left when the grandson was a year old. They came to Washington, where Judge Bryant would spend the rest of his life, except for his military service during World War II. To properly describe the rest of his illustrious career would take too many pages. But someday someone should write Bill Bryant’s biography. It is the story of a great American. Let me end with the famous concluding passage of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was read at the memorial service for Justice Brandeis. Christian, his pilgrimage ended, stands on the shore of the River of Death and speaks: “My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought His battles who now will be my rewarder.” And the book ends: “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.” I hope and believe that Bill Bryant heard those trumpets.
Daniel A. Rezneck is a senior trial counsel in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia.

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