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December 12, 2016

Remembering Eighth Circuit Judge Myron Bright, a first-ballot "Sentencing Hall of Famer"

Bright-cover-smallMore than a decade ago, I did some blog musing here on a winter's day to imagine a "Sentencing Judges Hall of Fame" — an institution like The National Baseball Hall of Fame which would seek to foster an appreciation of the historical development of sentencing and its impact on our justice system.  (Compare the mission statement of The National Baseball Hall of Fame.)  Today, the 2016 winter seems just a bit darker to me upon hearing this news report:  "Champion of equality Judge Myron Bright dies at 97."

Regular readers know why I am inclined to call the late Judge Bright a first-ballot "Sentencing Hall of Famer," and the news report does a solid (though necessarily incomplete) job of documenting just some reasons why Judge Bright was a singular judicial figure whose accomplishments and work will surely shine on for many years:  

Bright was born March 5, 1919, in Eveleth, Minn., the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He grew up on the Iron Range during the Great Depression, and he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of captain. He married Louise Reisler in 1946, and they had two children.

He was admitted to the North Dakota Bar in 1947, and he practiced law for 21 years before President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the federal bench. On Aug. 16, 1968, Bright was sworn in as a judge on the 8th Circuit appeals court.

By 2013, Bright estimated he had heard 7,000 cases and written 2,500 opinions – many of them dissents or separate concurrences – in his time on the bench. Even as late as 2014, he was hearing 40 to 50 cases a year, he said. In all, Bright served more than 48 years as a federal judge between full time and senior status.

Judges often reflect the philosophies of the presidents who appoint them, and in a December 2010 interview, Bright said he was proud to have done so, too. He and other Johnson appointees “worked unceasingly to batter down the prejudice against blacks and other minorities and women,” Bright said....

For years, Bright was concerned by the disproportionately long sentences for Native Americans who commit the same crimes as whites. In recent years, Bright said the nation needed to address the sentencing of large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders to prison, which cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually.

His efforts paid off. In 2013, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. Legal experts credited Bright with being one of the most influential judges in advocating an end to mandatory minimum sentencing. “What shall I say? I got vindication,” he told The Forum in a 2013 interview.

Bright’s efforts also loomed large in the life of James Dean Walker, an Arkansas man imprisoned for more than two decades after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1963. “After I looked at the Walker case, it didn’t smell right,” Bright told The Forum, even though he at first regarded the appeal with skepticism.

After a series of hearings and procedural reversals, Bright prevailed in a 5-4 decision that allowed Walker to leave prison as a free man in 1985. The divided appeals court concluded Walker was convicted with false evidence, and found that favorable eyewitness testimony had been suppressed....

As a judge, Bright said he 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 while on the bench. “I suppose I have a sympathetic heart, you might say,” Bright said, though he added that his decisions must be based on the law.

For those interested in an additional kind accounting of just some of Judge Bright's work, I am pleased to have been permitted to reprint here a letter authored by another one of my judicial heroes, U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt, which supported Judge Bright's nomination for the Morris Dees award.

Download Judge Pratt Letter about Judge Bright for Morris Dees award

December 12, 2016 at 05:31 PM | Permalink

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