Soul of the Court
The Trailblazing Life of Judge William Benson Bryant Sr.
The first full-length biography of a trailblazing DC attorney and judge
Legal legend Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer once stated that there were “only two people in the world who really understood the Constitution” and its impact on American lives. One was Hugo Black, deceased Supreme Court justice. The other was William Benson Bryant Sr. (1911-2005), who in the early 1950s became the first Black assistant US attorney to try cases in Washington, DC’s federal court, and became that same court’s first Black chief judge in 1977. Written by award-winning author Tonya Bolden, this biography presents the story of Bryant’s remarkable, pioneering life in the law—one that began in a segregated DC and included many years as an extraordinary criminal defense attorney, most notably as the dogged defender of Andrew Mallory, a young poor Black man sentenced to the electric chair for the 1954 rape of a white woman. Bryant fought for Mallory’s life all the way to the US Supreme Court, chiefly on the grounds that Mallory’s confession—the most damning evidence against him—was the fruit of an illegal detention. The High Court overturned Mallory’s conviction. Mallory v. United States was among the cases that culminated in the landmark 1966 Miranda rule.
Appointed to federal judicial service by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Bryant’s forty-year tenure included cases ranging from overturning a corrupted election of the United Mine Workers and unconstitutional conditions at the DC jail. The biography draws upon an array of documents, newspaper articles, interviews with the judge’s friends, colleagues, and family members, as well as oral histories, including Judge Bryant’s. Bolden beautifully narrates the story of a life of compassion, unparalleled integrity, and unwavering belief in the dignity of every human being.