Bruce Wright, a man I have never met, was a friend and professional acquaintance of my wife and my mother-in-law. I feel privileged to have heard some of his personal stories from them over the years.
Bruce M. Wright recently had a street named after him in Harlem, his sons sometimes speak about him publicly, and one of his four books, “Black Robes, White Justice”, still sells thousands of copies each year. Other than those mentions, and this diary, many of you may not have heard of Judge Bruce Wright.
Bruce Wright was a maverick in the world of judges. He was on the bench in New York City for over a quarter-century, and earned the nickname “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce”, by many detractors in law enforcement.
But Judge Wright was not swayed by anything except his own belief system and his determination of what was the right thing to do. Detractors claimed he was a liberal who wanted only to help offenders of his own race, and make a name for himself. But Judge Wright answered those critics by stating that he was only following the law. He rose to the bench in 1970, and saw black defendants routinely treated unfairly by white judges. He was determined to follow the law: laws forbidding excessive bail (The Eighth Amendment), and not adjudging those guilty who are only arrested and accused.
This low bail for accused criminals in his court earned him the nickname “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce” by the Police Union in New York City; and a reputation as a flaming liberal.
New York City Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, (one of Judge Wright’s sons), said that that nickname never bothered his father, but inspired him. He claims it gave the community a badge of honor to wear. His father, he said, “Abhorred racism; pure and simple.” He said his father worked long hours and would arrive at work at 4:30 or 5 in the morning. When his son asked him why he got to work so early, he said, “No matter what time I get there, the white man’s been there a half-hour earlier.”
New York City Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell characterized as “the biggest joke” that Judge Wright was too lenient. “He just believed in the law,” the Assemblyman added. “You weren’t guilty until you were found guilty. But once you were found guilty, he’d bust you up, man.”
Judge Wright abhorred the common tactics of cops in his day, and said that the routinely-acquitted officers in excessive force cases had given the police “a license to hunt down blacks.” (And that legacy is still felt today as much as ever.)
Still, releasing accused cop killers on 500. bail, and releasing with no bail a black man accused of slashing the throat of a white decoy officer; did not engender good feelings between the Police Union and Judge Wright. (Note that in both instances, the defendants were found not guilty of the murder and attempted murder of which they were accused).
Meanwhile, the City Bar Association rated his performance on the bench as “decidedly better than average,” and over the years he has earned much praise from former councilmen and mayors of the City; many his former virulent critics. Mayor Edward Koch, for example, called Judge Wright a “brilliant jurist.”
Mayor Koch stated that he “disagreed occasionally with his bail decisions, but in every case, the City Bar Association upheld his decision as correct.”
In a city where you just don’t mess with the police, and you do what they say, Judge Bruce Wright did what he felt was right. Always.
Bruce McMarion Wright was the son of a baker, and an excellent student. He was accepted at Princeton University, and then was basically rejected after they found out he was black. (Sixty-five years later, the Princeton graduating class of 2001 made him an honorary member.)
After graduating from a black college in Pennsylvania, he joined the Army and earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars at Normandy. After passing the bar exam, his prominent employer, a prestigious firm who had allowed him to clerk; told him there was no future for him there. (Same reason as Princeton).
Bruce Wright made his mark subsequently, with several black law firms in the city, and in 1967 he was named counsel to the New York City Human Resource Administration (where he worked with my mother-in-law). Three years later he would be on the Criminal Court Bench. Pressure from the police and other bigwigs resulted in his transfer to Civil Court, which he successfully fought with a lawsuit in federal court; and he was reinstated to the Criminal Court.
With his ten-year term on the Criminal Court bench about to expire, Judge Wright ran for Civil Court, and won. He also was elected and served as a justice on the State Supreme Court, from which he retired after 12 years.
At the time of his retirement, Judge Wright stated, “I have never changed my mind about the Eighth Amendment. To say that I would’ve done things differently means to me I would have been a good boy, kept my mouth shut, and availed myself of the benefits of the system. I don’t think I can do that. I don’t think I could ever do that.”
My mother-in-law was proud to have worked with him and been counted as his friend. My wife was proud to have clerked for him while in law school. His influence is truly felt to this day.
We need people like Judge Bruce Wright, or things will never change.
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