The Bright Guy

Photo credit: David Samson The Forum. Myron Bright receives well wishes from his granddaughter Amy Long of Fargo on Sunday during his 95th birthday celebration.

Photo credit: David Samson The Forum. Myron Bright receives well wishes from his granddaughter Amy Long of Fargo on Sunday during his 95th birthday celebration.

Judge Myron Bright, who I have known now for over 40 years, is one of the most remarkable men I have come across. From a wonderful article written by Grace Lyden for inforum,* we learn that Judge Bright was recently recognized for all manner of amazing things, including, most especially, that he continues to hear cases as one of the most respected federal appellate judges in the nation:

FARGO – Judge Myron Bright had a lot to celebrate at his party on Sunday afternoon.

This year marks Bright’s 50th year of service to his country: four in the army and more than 46 as a federal judge on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The event was also a book launch for Bright’s autobiography and a belated birthday party – he turned 95 in March.

Bright took senior status in 1985, but continues to hear cases and is the longest-serving judge in his circuit.*

He said he was “amazed” at how many turned out for the party: more than a hundred friends and family from across North Dakota and Minnesota.

They gathered at Touchmark at Harwood Groves, a retirement community where Bright lives.

Early in the afternoon, Bright stood up and recognized a few who had come particularly far, then extended the invitation:

“All you are friends!” he cried in the booming voice that Susan Skeen, 62, associates with her former next-door neighbor. “Why don’t you stand up and give yourselves a hand?”

Skeen was there with her parents, Luther and Marilyn Kristensen, who live in Bismarck. The three of them spent the afternoon fondly recalling their 15 years as neighbors of the Bright family, on 21st Avenue South.

The Brights taught the Kristensens about Jewish holidays, and the Kristensens invited the Brights over to hang Christmas lights and bake cookies.

“Are you ordering one of those books?” Luther Kristensen, 83, asked his wife.

“I’m ordering six of ’em,” said Marilyn, 82, without hesitation.

Bright’s memoir, titled “Goodbye Mike, Hello Judge: My Journey for Justice,” was published by North Dakota State University and should be available in about a week, editor Bob Jansen said.

Rob and Wendy Gordon were also at the party with their two children; their son Micah, 9, is friends with one of Bright’s great-grandchildren, and they’ve known Bright for 12 years through Temple Bethel.

Wendy described Bright as “kind, insightful, but tough as nails.” She and her husband refer to him as simply, “the judge.”

Bright will hear 40 to 50 cases this year, from September 2014 to June 2015. In December, he’ll hear cases happening in St. Paul through video conferencing, he said.

“Retiring for most other people would not be what it is for him,” said his granddaughter Amy Long, 38. Long’s 9-year-old son, William Bright Long, is named after his great-grandfather.

Bright has two children, three grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and another on the way. His wife Frances, or “Fritzie,” died in 2000 after almost 54 years of marriage.

Bright said two things are important to him: family and work.

“I always tell people, what the hell am I gonna do if I retire?” he said with a grin. “It keeps my mind active. It keeps me young.”

Bright said his biggest challenge today is not a personal one but a cause: He is concerned by the disproportionately long sentences for Native Americans who commit the same crimes as whites.

As the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Bright considers himself a champion of equality for minorities, and his son said that’s still the case.

“What hasn’t changed or him are his convictions,” said Josh Bright, 57.

Josh and his sister, Dinah Golding, were glowing as they watched their father shout greetings to everyone who walked by him at the party.

“He eats this up; he loves this,” Golding said. “He loves embracing life.”

Judge Bright, and my mentor Judge Ross, could not have been more different. Ross was tall, quiet, conservative, Republican, and all that goes with those things. Bright was (and is) short, loquacious, liberal and Democrat and all that goes with those things. And they were the best of friends. It is not a stretch to say they loved each other.

I will tell two stories about the men, more for the fun of telling them than anything else, although they provide insights into a rare and beautiful friendship.

* I cannot prove that this story is true, but I have reason to think that it is. Judge Ross and Judge Bright were sitting together with a visiting judge.  One evening they all went to dinner. They brought several law clerks along. Earlier that day they had heard a labor union case brought by a distinguished Omaha lawyer who happened to be Jewish. During a point in the meal, Judge Ross excused himself for a bathroom break. While he was gone, the visiting judge started to speak ill of the Omaha lawyer in front of Judge Bright and the law clerks. He made anti-Semitic remarks that made all the law clerks very uncomfortable since they were well aware that Judge Bright was Jewish, and proud of it. When Ross returned to the table, the conversation turned to other subjects. After the evening meal, Ross and Bright went to retrieve their coats. One of the law clerks called the visiting judge aside, and told him that Judge Bright was Jewish. The visiting judge was crestfallen. In response, the visiting judge told the law clerk, “Well, hell. I made a fool of myself. I knew Ross was a Jew, but not Mike.” Of course, that was not true. Ross was a protestant. Upon learning of this exchange from the clerk, Ross and Bright had a good and hearty laugh. The story is now legend, although not widely known outside of a few.

*One of my jobs as a Ross clerk was to pick up judges who flew to Omaha to meet Judge Ross and then drive north for fishing in the Boundary Waters. That’s how I first came to know Judge Bright. A warmer person I have never known. Over the years, Judge Bright’s kindness to me continued unabated. He never forgot my name, although god knows why he had any reason to remember it. After I became a district judge, Judge Bright would occasionally call me to see how Judge Ross was doing. I was always happy to hear from him. The conversations were brief, and Judge Bright’s raspy voice clipped. He spoke quickly. I always referred to him as “Judge” and he always referred to me as “Rich.” As both men hit 90 and above, Judge Bright followed Judge Ross from afar as Ross became ever so frail. The last birthday Judge Ross celebrated was nearing, and sure enough Judge Bright reached out to me. The following conversation ensued:

Rich, this is Bright.

Oh, hi Judge.

Rossie’s birthday is coming up.

Yes, Judge.

Get a good flower arrangement. A bright one.

Yes, Judge.

Send it to Rossie.

Yes, sir.

Sign it, “The Bright Guy.”

The phone went dead.

I think Judge Bright still thought of me as a law clerk.  And, that made me both very proud and very happy.


H/t How Appealing.

*For a detailed background on Judge Bright, see here from the Eighth Circuit Historical Society.

10 responses

  1. I spent a week with the Judge at one of his judicial visits to a law school. Given the Judge’s love of good talk and great story telling and his apparent lack of need to sleep I was the night man for Judge Ross. The two of them shaped my idea of what judges should be and I still delight in the memories. Judge Bright joked that if one wanted a judicial career it was wise to marry a future DNC member. The Verdict was a new movie at the time. He joked that he had tried a plaintiff’s malpractice case in Boston and had all the experiences of the Paul Newman.. Then he paused and then added but they did not send in the pretty spy. Paused again and then added, maybe I should not have taken my wife on that trip.

  2. It’s fascinating to see how judges treat colleagues in their dotage. They won’t trust him to write a published opinion, and he has probably lost a few steps, but he wrote twelve dissents in the past five years, and most of them were in “unpublished” opinions. Most judges who overstay their welcome are not treated as kindly.

    I took the liberty of reading some of his dissents. Allowing for the presumption that he relied heavily on his clerks, he still seems to have some juice! He remains true to his convictions (see e.g., US v. Markert). I raise a glass to one of the few federal judges old enough to be my father. 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post about Judge Bright. I remember him when I clerked on the Eighth Circuit. He was very kind, outspoken and funny. I look forward to reading his autobiography. As I recall, he wrote a book on appellate writing but I could not find when I performed a google search just now. I think I owned a copy.

  4. Thank you for this. Judge Bright was a pleasure to appear before, and I appreciated his written “tips” for the appellate practitioner.

  5. Pingback: Eighth Circuit Judge Bright Names Disproportionate Sentences of Native Convicts as “Biggest Challenge Today” | Turtle Talk

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