Patrick Springer, Published August 14 2013
Myron Bright reflects on long, storied career as US appeals court judge
“After I looked at the Walker case, it didn’t smell right,” Bright said, even though he at first regarded the appeal with skepticism.
After a series of hearings and procedural reversals spanning more than 23 years, Bright prevailed in a 5-4 decision that allowed Walker to leave prison as a free man in 1985.
Last month, when Bright’s former law clerks reunited to celebrate his 45 years on the federal appellate bench, the judge met the former criminal defendant for the first time.
“I had no idea he was coming,” Bright said. “It was a very heartwarming event for both of us.”
Ultimately, a divided appeals court concluded Walker was convicted with false evidence, and found that favorable eyewitness testimony had been suppressed.
The two had spoken earlier on the phone, and Walker had written Bright more than once to thank him. But the judge’s last glimpse of the former prisoner had come from television footage in 1985. “He hadn’t changed much,” the judge said, noting that Walker now is in his 70s and supports himself by shining shoes.
Playing a pivotal role in freeing a man wrongfully convicted and sentenced to a life in prison – and meeting him face-to-face years later – were among the highlights of a long judicial career that Bright reflected upon Wednesday.
Friday will mark the 45th anniversary of the day – Aug. 16, 1968 – Bright was sworn in as a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
During his 4½ decades on the bench, Bright estimates that he has heard 7,000 cases and written 2,500 opinions – many of them dissents or separate concurrences, in which he must conclude the decision is right according to the law, but considers the result to be unjust.
One of the benefits of longevity on the bench – Bright is 94 – has been to serve long enough to see others coming around to his views on a subject that Bright has railed against in many of his dissents.
Harsh mandatory minimum sentences, especially for low-level drug defendants whose crimes do not involve violence, have long struck Bright as arbitrary and unfair.
Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, in recent comments delivered before the American Bar Association, spoke out against harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.
For Bright, who has been credited by legal experts as being one of two judges who have been most influential in advocating an end to the practice, it was a turning point he regards as significant.
“What shall I say? I got vindication.”
The role of being a frequent dissenter has its frustrations and moments of doubt.
“I have written scores and scores of separate opinions,” Bright said. “You kind of ask yourself, ‘Am I out of step?’ ”
His fellow judges, he added, are intelligent and have good reasons for reaching decisions that differ from his own.
But Bright persists in writing dissenting and separate concurring opinions because he hopes ultimately to sway his fellow judges.
It sometimes happens, as it did in the case of James Dean Walker, which Bright sees as repairing a crack in the criminal judicial system.
‘I want a live husband’
Myron Bright’s long, storied career on the federal bench might never have happened if not for a road trip his family took in 1965 from Fargo to Washington, D.C., for a vacation.
He was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when his wife, Fritzie, made what would become a life-altering suggestion.
“Myron, when we get to Washington why don’t you ask Quentin about a judgeship?”
That would be the late Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., a close friend of the Brights and a fellow lawyer.
“What do I want to be a judge for?” Bright replied. “I’m having too good a time as a trial lawyer.
“Fritzie looked up at me and said, ‘Listen, I want a live husband and not a dead trial lawyer.’ ”
An opening came up a few years later on the 8th Circuit with the retirement of Judge Charles Vogel, also from Fargo.
The vacant seat was slated to go to a South Dakota lawyer, but a twist of political fate gave Burdick the opportunity to nominate Bright, who was appointed by President Johnson.
When meeting the president, Bright and Burdick were greeted at the gate to the White House by a stern guard who asked the judicial candidate for identification.
“I take out my wallet and pull out my Elks card,” Burdick later wrote. The seal seems official enough, and they pass through the gate. A second officer asks for identification.
“This time I pull out my membership card in the Democratic-NPL Part of North Dakota,” Bright wrote. “This seems to do the trick and we are ushered into the basement of the White House and asked to take a seat on a beautiful, black leather couch.”
Later, during a visit with LBJ that lasted 30 or 45 minutes, the president noted that Burdick was responsible for Bright’s appointment.
“As we were walking out of his office, towards the reception room, the president said, ‘You’ve got a good man there,’ ” Burdick wrote.
Johnson noted that Burdick passed over his own brother in nominating Bright. LBJ was about to demonstrate the precinct-level politicking for which the Texan was famous.
“You’ve got a good man there,” the president said, meaning Burdick. “When you’re a circuit judge, while you can’t be active in politics, you better get your cousins and kinsmen to remember the man who got you where you are.”
The meeting in the Oval Office was on May 8, 1968. A little more than three months later, Bright became the first Jewish judge on the 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis.
He made history again in 2009 when he became the longest-serving judge on the 8th Circuit, and today holds the distinction of being the oldest working federal appeals judge.
On the Iron Range
Bright’s parents immigrated from Russia and settled in Minnesota’s Iron Range, where his father first worked in the shipyards of Duluth.
His father later became a merchant, running a series of general merchandise stores in small towns. In 1927, he bought a store in Eveleth, where Bright grew up during the Great Depression.
The Iron Range communities then were comprised of immigrant workers: Finns, Italians, Slovenians and others from Eastern and Central Europe, including Russia.
“They all were interested in bettering themselves,” Bright said. “I was a first-generation American and so were all my friends. We all learned to live together and work together.”
Although Bright seldom experienced discrimination, his Jewish background came up when he was interviewing for jobs after graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Law in 1947, after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
A lawyer from a Duluth firm asked about his religion, and when he answered that he was Jewish was told that could pose a problem for some New York insurance clients.
Later, when interviewing with what became the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, he volunteered that he was Jewish but the answer was, “What difference does that make?”
Bright moved to Fargo and spent 21 years in private practice, with a heavy emphasis in trial work.
Two cases stand out from Bright’s years as a trial lawyer, both civil disputes.
In one, his written argument cleared the way for William Guy to be seated as governor in 1960, following a challenge that he was ineligible because, as a state legislator, he had voted to build a new governor’s mansion and for a new car for the governor’s use.
In the other, his argument that municipal bond issues could be applied to private issues – his clients were in the sugar beet industry – enabled the access to capital that benefited not only his clients but many other enterprises over the years.
As a judge, Bright has had the satisfaction of seeing many of the decisions he helped to mold become embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Often, the son of an immigrant storekeeper who repeatedly granted credit to jobless customers found himself siding with the disenfranchised.
“I suppose I have a sympathetic heart, you might say,” Bright said. He quickly added that he must base his decisions on the law. And when he disagrees with that law, he’ll put it in writing.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522