When I graduated from law school I went to work as a law clerk for Judge Myron Bright of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit for two years, from 1979-1981. Judge Bright died today in Fargo at the age of 97. He was a great man and an extraordinary judge. The Fargo Forum has just posted an obituary here. Many others will offer their individual memories and personal perspectives on the judge. He led a consequential life while he touched the lives of countless others.
Judge Bright’s official portrait was commissioned around the time he took senior status in 1985. I think it captures the glint in his eye and the largeness of his spirit.
Judge Bright was born in Eveleth, Minnesota, on the Iron Range. He attended the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and then served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of captain. He was rightly proud of his service.
After his service, Judge Bright attended the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating on an accelerated basis in 1947. He made his career as a litigator in Fargo, North Dakota, where he was working when he was appointed to the bench in 1968.
He maintained his judicial office in Fargo, North Dakota, but put me to work for him on the court’s central staff in St. Louis. Working for Judge Bright was an immersive, full-body experience. He brought me into his life as he did all his law clerks. Over the two years I worked for him, I learned much about law and life.
Judge Bright kept up with his clerks through reunions at five-year intervals. I missed the last one because I was out of the country. I reconnected with him at a book publication party at the offices of the Stinson Leonard Street law firm in Minneapolis on December 18, 2015. I want to acknowledge that Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, hosted the event and made sure I didn’t miss it. Steve has issued his own statement on Judge Bright’s passing today.
Behind Judge Bright’s appointment to the bench by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 lies a good story — one that Judge Bright tells in the book. When I saw him at the book party last year, I told him I thought he was old when I worked for him, which was a while ago. He was 96 when I saw him at the party last year, but he was set to hear cases the next morning in St. Paul. He continued to hear cases as a senior judge until late this year. He was the most senior federal judge in the United States, with some 6,600 cases or more under his belt.
Judge Bright recently alerted his law clerks that his death was imminent. I wrote Judge Bright the personal message below last week (“Fritzie” refers to his late wife, Frances Reisler Bright). Judge Bright’s secretary, Lana Schultz, delivered my message to Judge Bright and wrote later to let me know: “Judge Bright wanted me to tell you he was very touched by your most kind letter and he thanks you for writing.” I add that note only because what I had to say was so inadequate:
Dear Judge Bright: Thanks so much for the update on your health. It made me pause to think what an incredible example you have set for us in just about every way including this one.
I have so much to thank you for…
Thank you for taking a chance on me when when I was about to graduate from the University of Minnesota Law School.
You changed my life, entirely for the better.
Thank you for having me trained in by your outgoing law clerk Bill Brighton in your Fargo chambers. It took me a little while to get up to speed even though you were a great teacher. Working with chambers law clerks Rob [Mitchell] and Dan [Fitzmaurice] that first year was an unforgettable experience as well.
On my first trip for training in August 1979, you had us out to Lake Melissa. We went to the Pine to Palm golf tournament with you. We ate at your lake place. You wanted to show us a good time and you did.
On that first trip you went out of your way to introduce me to Judge [Ronald] Davies. Thank you for that.
You exposed me to your full life on the court during the two years I worked for you. I must have sat in on something like 100 oral arguments. You shared your thoughts about the lawyers and the merits of the cases. Through your memos on the [post-argument] conferences, you let me know what your colleagues on the court thought about the cases for which you had me draft opinions. I came to understand how the court actually decided cases. What an education.
You taught me what it means to be a judge. I most vividly remember one case that is not to be found in any of the books. The court set a special afternoon hearing to entertain a motion brought by the National Labor Relations Board to have a man held in contempt for refusing to comply with the order entered by the court in the case the NLRB had brought against him. The man was from the Iron Range.
You took the lead in the hearing because of your connection to the Range. In the course of a 15-minute hearing, you gently talked the elderly gentleman who resisted the NLRB into complying with the court’s order. It was a case study in human understanding and in great power wielded with true mercy.
You had me come up to Fargo several times to work on cases over the two years I worked for you. Each time you had me over to your home for dinner with Fritzie. You treated me like a member of your family, as you always insisted your clerks were.
I loved appearing before you when I was in private practice. When I left private practice, I called to let you know. You told me I was doing the right thing. Your encouragement meant a lot to me.
I could keep going but I think I better save some thoughts for another email or two. Please know that I am thinking about you with gratitude and affection.
When I saw Judge Bright at the book party last year, I asked him if he had any words of wisdom I could share. He exclaimed: “Just lucky!” Thinking of my time working for Judge Bright, I can only second that emotion.