Bill Pryor: A distinguished judge and a good man who knew how to play the game

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel on longtime DC judge William Pryor:

William C. Pryor, who served on the D.C. bench for half a century, including a four-year stint in the 1980s as chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, died Nov. 19. He was 88.

Judge Pryor, who grew up amid segregation in Washington, was appointed to the old D.C. Court of General Sessions — now called the D.C. Superior Court — in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

He took his seat on the bench soon after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as Washington erupted in rioting and unrest.

“The city really was on fire,” Judge Pryor said in a 1995 interview. “The situation was so volatile that there were armed guards posted outside my house.”

He said some of the defendants brought before him were “people that I had gone to grade school and high school with.” He understood that social tensions “had been percolating for a long time,” but he recognized that his job as a judge was to uphold the law.

“I felt it was important to make a clear distinction: rioting and looting was not an expression of civil rights, nor was it an appropriate form of protest,” he said. “It was criminal conduct.”

For the next 20 years as a full-time judge, followed by another 30 on part-time senior status, Judge Pryor built a reputation as a low-key, moderate jurist. He seldom handled high-profile cases, presiding mostly over such day-to-day concerns as criminal offenses, commercial contracts, landlord-tenant disputes, juvenile and domestic matters.

“I think I derived my greatest satisfaction from being able to get heated-up, angry people to calm down, and walk away from the court without feeling frustrated and angered,” he said in the D.C. Bar interview. “That’s not the kind of thing that makes the newspaper, but I did enjoy the human uplift derived from getting people to reach some sort of an accommodation.”

In 1979, Judge Pryor was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the D.C. Court of Appeals — the District’s equivalent of a state supreme court. Five years later, he was named chief judge of the nine-judge court. When he formally retired in 1988, colleagues “credited Pryor with a calm and mannerly personality that helped create harmony in the dual appellate and trial court system,” a Washington Post article noted. . . .

In the D.C. Bar interview, Judge Pryor recalled that he was playing basketball at the YMCA on a Saturday morning when he received an urgent call from his wife, telling him that President Johnson wanted to see him at the White House at once. She brought him a suit and tie, but not a pair of dark socks.

“So I showered and hurried down to the White House to meet the president — unshaven and wearing dirty white gym socks,” Judge Pryor said. “I was ushered in, and President Johnson looked me over. He looked at the socks, but didn’t mention them. I said, ‘Mr. President it is my pleasure to be here. I hope you understand that half an hour ago I was playing basketball.’”

It was then that Johnson offered him a position as a judge.

Jack note: Bill Pryor’s interview with President Johnson was in 1968—the year I arrived in DC. I had played basketball in high school and college and looked for a DC game I could play in during the lunch hour. I found it at what was “the old Y” near the White House. You’d show up at the Y gym at noon and play in pickup games with whoever else showed up—in 1968 the players were almost all young Black men. There were no introductions–we just played an hour of tough “no fouls called” basketball. It took about two years of playing to find out that Bill was a judge and we’d often talk for a few minutes after we were done playing. One of the joys of sports—nobody cares what your job is, can you play the game? Bill had game.

A P.S. about YMCA basketball: By the mid-70s Washington was fast becoming bigger and wealthier—lots of new high-paying jobs as the federal government grew—and the YMCA decided “the old Y” should be replaced by a bigger and fancier new Y. That new Y was much nicer and more expensive than the old Y and the noon basketball games changed, too. The young Black guys at the old Y were replaced by mostly white guys in their 30s and 40s, many of whom I assumed were lawyers because of the way they constantly argued: “He fouled me! He fouled me!” It got so tiresome that I quit playing basketball and just ran on the track. I never saw Bill at the new Y –maybe he had enough contentious dealings with lawyers at the courthouse. RIP Bill, a man who knew how to play the game.

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