Remembering Judge Bright

The Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference convenes today in Fargo. Driving into Fargo on Monday I heard Rush Limbaugh take his first call of the day from Fargo and note the impending Eighth Circuit Conference, which he said his cousin would be attending. Rush was on top of it.

In advance of the conference the court held a memorial session on Tuesday in the beautiful courtroom on the fourth floor of the Quentin Burdick Courthouse in honor of Judge Myron Bright, who died this past December. Originally from Eveleth, Minnesota, Judge Bright was a remarkable man. He was the longest serving member of the federal judiciary at the time of his death. He was a friend, roughly speaking, to everyone who ever met him, none more so than his many law clerks, of which I was one for two years at the outset of my career. I recalled Judge Bright upon his passing here.

Eighth Circuit Chief Judge Lavenski Smith, of Little Rock, called the event to order at 11:00 and recognized the many judges, family members, former clerks and others in attendance. He welcomed us with moving remarks recalling his own experience as a colleague of Judge Bright. Eighth Circuit Judge Roger Wollman, North Dakota Federal District Judge Ralph Erickson (nominated by President Trump to the Eighth Circuit) and son-in-law Chris Golding spoke. It was the kind of event that makes you pause to reflect about the things that matter.

Dennis Kelly served as Judge Bright’s first law clerk in 1968-1969. Dennis went on to a distinguished career at the Jones Day law firm in Cleveland. Speaking first at the memorial session after Chief Judge Smith’s welcome, Dennis gave the clerk’s eye view of Judge Bright. Dennis graciously entrusted his handwritten remarks to me following the memorial session. With Dennis’s permission, I am posting his remarks below (any typos are my own).

We are here to celebrate the life of Judge Myron Bright and to mourn his passing. And what a life it was. It was a miracle that he was able to accomplish so much in 97 years. For more than 45 of those years, he was on the Eighth Circuit. There he left a lasting imprint on the law in thousands of decisions which reflected his deep respect for individual rights and his abiding determination to do what was right. He was the champion of the common man and sought to bring the promise of our American system of justice to all who came before him.

It was obvious that he truly enjoyed being a judge. As Justice Ginsburg wrote on the occasion of his thirtieth year on the court: “Words of the prophet Micah capture your spirit, heart and mind, for you strive to do justice, you love kindness and you do not blow your own trumpet.” She continued: “I know, too, from personal experience, that you have the capacity to make the most sober judge smile.”

For the fortunate few young lawyers who were his law clerks — more than 100, of whom I was one — he instilled at the outset of their careers a profound appreciation of what it means to be a lawyer and an idealism which could only be learned by watching him in action. For his devoted staff, his warmth and generosity enriched their lives.

Judge Bright considered his clerks and staff to be part of his extended family. He took great joy in their accomplishments and shared their sadness in misfortune. He also took great satisfaction in knowing that they had stayed true to their ideals and had followed the right moral compass.

Every five years, he would invite them all to a reunion. By and large, they did not know each other but they did know him. He always filled the hall with great numbers of former law clerks and their families who had traveled from far and wide just to spend a few days with Judge Bright.

In his autobiography, he wrote: “At my age of 94, of which 66 of those years represent my engagement with the law…, I ask myself: What have I done, what have I contributed to society in my work, particularly as a federal judge?”

With great modesty, he reflects on the many significant opinions he authored, but then adds: “I cannot guarantee the life and continuity of these opinions. But in my contributions to the country, I note the approximate one hundred young lawyers who served as my law clerks. These men and women, most of them still practicing lawyers and a few as judges, carry in their minds the imprint of my philosophy as a person and as a judge. These former law clerks, with whatever assistance I have been to them, will be positive contributors to a better life for themselves, their families, and their clients in the practice of law.”

What made Judge Bright the man he was? He was born of Russian immigrant parents, raised on Minnesota’s Iron Range, came of age during the Depression and nobly served his country during World War II. For many years he was a successful and well known trial attorney in Fargo. All that, for sure. But at the end of the day, I think he would look to his dear wife Fritzie. For 54 years she was his guiding light, never hesitating to speak her mind, his strong and constant companion. Those who knew her remember her fondly today.

By far, the greatest gift life bestowed on him was his wonderful family, his children Josh and Dinah, his son-in-law Chris and his grandchildren and great grandchildren. They were his pride and joy.

Those who knew him will treasure their memories and the impact he had on their lives. Those who knew him only a little encountered a man of uncommon warmth and generosity. With a buoyant spirit, he made friends wherever he went. We are all the better for it and our American ideal of justice and fairness for all is just a little closer thanks to Judge Bright.

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