Today, Judge William C. Bryson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit assumed senior status. Judge Bryson joined the court in 1994. A true career civil servant, his experience prior to joining the bench was extraordinary: he served as a law clerk to both Judge Friendly of the Second Circuit and Justice Thurgood Marshall, and spent seventeen years at the Department of Justice (including two stints as Acting Solicitor General) prior to his appointment to the Federal Circuit. His work ethic, keen intelligence, and sense of fairness are legendary on the court.
One short story of my own: A few hours after interviewing with Judge Bryson, I was ecstatic to receive a phone call from the judge offering me a position in his chambers. But Judge Bryson made the offer with a condition: he required me to wait at least a week before I could accept the offer, so that I could really think about the offer and weigh any offers from other judges. In today's day of hour-long exploding clerkship offers, Judge Bryson's practice really stands out in sharp contrast (admittedly, I don't know whether he still follows this rule). Of course, I accepted the offer as soon as I was permitted to!
In celebration of Judge Bryson's service on the Federal Circuit, I reached out to several of his other former clerks for their thoughts on the judge. There were far more than I could possible include here, but the comments below are representative:
- "The best thing I learned working for Judge Bryson is not to be so enamored of the easy parts of your case that you lose sight of the hard parts. Work to find the hardest question that a judge or an opponent might put to your case. If you can’t figure that out, you don’t know your case well enough. Then work to find the best answer to that hard question. If you don’t have a good answer, you are not doing everything that you can to win. Surprisingly, many attorneys arguing at the Court seemed shocked to be challenged or have their arguments tested."
- "I have had many senior partners, clients, superiors, etc. tell me over the years that they want my unvarnished views and don’t want “yes men” to just nod along. Judge Bryson embodied the rare person who really meant that when he said it."
- "Judge Bryson was assigned the standard floor space in the Markey courthouse — three bay windows' worth — and was allowed to configure his chambers as he saw fit. He took none of the windows for his own office. Instead, he sat in a windowless room and used the bay windows for a library and conference room open for use by (and frequently used by) all of chambers staff. This unusual and perhaps unique arrangement speaks volumes to Judge Bryson's humility, collegiality, and work ethic." (This specific recollection was shared by many of Judge Bryson's former clerks).
- "Probably every person that argues in front of Judge Bryson lives in respect of his hypotheticals. He has a good knack for boiling down the essential point of a case into a hypothetical question or statement. As a clerk, the amusing aspect of the hypotheticals was that many attorneys could not decide whether they should agree, or disagree, with his hypothetical. The deer-in-the-headlights look from these attorneys was priceless."
- "If you have a good substantive case, you want Judge Bryson on your panel. If you don’t have a good substantive case, you don’t want to see him show up on your panel."
- "At the end of our clerkship during a recruiting dinner, I had a very senior figure at one of the top patent firms (you’d know his name immediately) say to me “You know… some people would say that Judge Bryson is the smartest judge on the bench.” I’ve had this statement repeated to me many times by members of the Fed Cir bar over the last 11 years."
- "When I brought my kids into chambers, I was worried about them overstaying their welcome and bothering Judge Bryson. To the contrary, I think that if Judge Bryson had had his way, he would have spent the whole afternoon looking up countries on the globe and drawing on the white board with them."
- "I think of Judge Bryson as extraordinarily dedicated to reaching the correct decision in any appeal. For patent cases, I remember that he would always spend a great deal of time attempting to understand the underlying technologies. One time, I saw him studying briefs while he was waiting for the Metro at McPherson Square."
- "During the clerkship, I was endlessly impressed by how Judge Bryson was always able easily to pierce through a complicated record to identify what was central to the disposition of a case — and how he worked through all issues with such integrity. Various former clerks of Judge Friendly (the Second Circuit titan for whom Judge Bryson had also clerked) have often spoken about how their judge didn't really need any law clerks, because his knowledge of the law was just so encyclopedic, and because he was so efficient and self-sufficient; I feel the same way about Judge Bryson. And on top of it all, he is a true and kind mentor. Those of us who have had the privilege of clerking for Judge are truly lucky."
- "Judge Bryson's questions at argument could be difficult to deal with, even for seasoned attorneys. In one example, an attorney attempted to sidestep one of Judge Bryson's questions (or at least buy himself time), arguing that "I'm from Texas, I think slow and I talk slow." Judge Bryson was not so easily brushed aside, responding something like, "I'm from Texas too, but I would like you to answer my question.""
- "Judge Bryson is easily the smartest lawyer I've ever known, and yet also one of the most unassuming people I've ever known. I recently read a biography of Judge Bryson's former boss Judge Friendly. I frequently recalled my year as a clerk for Judge Bryson as I read about Judge Friendly's intellect, work habits, non-ideological approach to judging, and how his clerks apparently had to work hard to come up with things that the judge hadn't already figured out on his own. Much like Judge Friendly was, though, Judge Bryson is not the least bit pretentious or taken with his own intellect — despite having infinitely more skill and experience than his clerks, Judge Bryson treated his clerks as colleagues and was always open to hearing their ideas. I can think of no better way to have started my legal career than the year I spent as a clerk for Judge Bryson."
As a senior judge, Judge Bryson will continue to sit regularly on the court, although with a reduced docket. We can hope that he will do so for many years!