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'He was living history': Champion of equality Judge Myron Bright dies at 97

Judge Myron Bright, 97, died early Monday morning, Dec. 12. Dave Wallis / The Forum 1 / 4
Judge Myron Bright and his wife Fritzie with North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick and President Lyndon Johnson in the White House in 1968. Johnson appointed Bright to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Special to The Forum.2 / 4
Judge Myron Bright during his service in World War II. Special to The Forum.3 / 4
Judge Myron Bright in 2009. Forum file photo. 4 / 4

FARGO – Judge Myron Bright, a champion of equal rights for minorities and women and the longest-serving working judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has died.

Bright, 97, died early Monday, Dec. 12, at Eventide Fargo.

“He died peacefully with his entire family with him this morning, about 12:15 a.m.” said Christian Golding, his son-in-law.

“He was living history,” Golding said. “He was more than just quite a man. He was a legend.”

Bright had moved about a month ago to Eventide from his longtime residence at Touchmark at Harwood Groves in Fargo, Golding said.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Bright was still hearing cases as a judge in senior status on the appeals court, Golding said.

William Jay Riley, chief judge for the 8th Circuit, said Bright was revered by judges and lawyers nationwide.

“I’ve sat with him on the court many, many times, and marveled first at his brilliance in analyzing cases. But second, his congeniality. … He was always a gentleman,” Riley said.

“All of us that knew him will miss him immensely,” he said.

Ralph Erickson, a U.S. District Court judge for the District of North Dakota, said Bright was a good friend.

“Myron Bright was really a legal giant in our community,” Erickson said. “There are not many men of his stature that are produced in this country at any one time. He was extremely intelligent and a very capable man. … He was an excellent judge, but he was truly a good person.”

Bright cared about people who lacked influence and power, Erickson said.

“He was engaging and always engaged,” he said. “Right to the very end, he was a person that was forward-looking.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., praised Bright’s empathy and compassion.

“While making decisions, he always walked in the shoes of those who may not have had a voice in the courtroom, reminding us why empathy is so vital on the bench,” she said in a statement. “That compassion and ability to look at matters from all perspectives made him an invaluable defender of equal rights and a proponent of tolerance – improving lives in Native American communities and bringing kindness to any job he did or decision he made.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also extended his condolences.

"Judge Bright served his country for half a century, both in the military during World War II and on the bench, gaining the respect and admiration of people, both regionally and nationally. His judicial roles and awards are too numerous to list, but suffice to say he had an impact on the federal judiciary and the lives of thousands for five decades," Hoeven said in a statement. 

Nicholas Vogel, a senior member of the Vogel Law Firm, said Bright was highly respected in the legal community.

“He was very personable, friendly, socially oriented,” Vogels said. “And he was a good judge. He was a liberal, good judge.”

“The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas notes with great sadness the passing of Judge Myron “Mike” Bright,” Steve Hunegs, executive director of the JCRC, said in a statement. “Judge Bright’s deep connection to the Jewish community and all minority communities and his commitment to equal justice under the law permeated his career and philosophy with the practical sense which was a hallmark of his opinions.”

Bright was born March 5, 1919, in Eveleth, Minn., the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia.

His father first worked in the shipyards of Duluth, then eventually bought a store in Eveleth, where Bright grew up during the Great Depression.

Bright served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, rising to the rank of captain.

He married Frances “Fritzie” Reisler in 1946, and they had two children. His wife died in October 2000 at the age of 76.

He was admitted to the North Dakota Bar in 1947, and he practiced law for 21 years before President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the federal bench.

On Aug. 16, 1968, Bright was sworn in as a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

By 2013, Bright estimated he had heard 7,000 cases and written 2,500 opinions. Even as late as 2014, he was hearing 40 to 50 cases a year, he said.

In all, Bright served more than 48 years as a federal judge between full-time and senior status.

Bright said he was proud of his ruling in McDonnell Douglas v. Green, in which he wrote about covert discrimination, as well as his opinion in Solem v. Helm, which overturned a life sentence without parole for a South Dakota man who committed several nonviolent felonies.

For years, Bright was concerned by the disproportionately long sentences for Native Americans who commit the same crimes as whites.

He also was a leading advocate for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders.

Bright’s efforts also loomed large in the life of James Dean Walker, an Arkansas man imprisoned for more than two decades after being convicted of murdering a police officer in 1963.

After a series of hearings and procedural reversals, Bright prevailed in a 5-4 decision that allowed Walker to leave prison as a free man in 1985.

The divided appeals court concluded Walker was convicted with false evidence, and found that favorable eyewitness testimony had been suppressed.

Although Bright said he seldom experienced discrimination, his Jewish background came up when he was interviewing for jobs after graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Law in 1947.

A lawyer from a Duluth firm asked about his religion, and when he answered that he was Jewish he was told that could pose a problem for some New York insurance clients.

Later, when interviewing with what became the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, he volunteered that he was Jewish but the answer was, “What difference does that make?”

Bright moved to Fargo and spent 21 years in private practice.

Two cases stand out from Bright’s years as a trial lawyer; both civil disputes.

In one, his written argument cleared the way for William Guy to be seated as governor in 1960, following a challenge that he was ineligible because, as a state legislator, he had voted to build a new governor’s mansion and for a new car for the governor’s use.

In the other case, his argument that municipal bond issues could be applied to private issues – his clients were in the sugar beet industry – enabled the access to capital that benefited not only his clients but many other enterprises over the years.

In late 2012, Bright was honored with the Robert Feder Humanitarian of the Year award by Temple Beth El in Fargo.

His autobiography, “Goodbye Mike, Hello Judge: My Journey for Justice,” was published by North Dakota State University in 2014.

A gathering of friends and family will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20, at Boulger Funeral Home and Celebration of Life Center, 123 10th St. S., Fargo.

A public memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, at Reineke Fine Arts Center on the North Dakota State University campus followed by a reception at the Fargo Country Club at 3 p.m.

 

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including K-12 education, Fargo city government, criminal justice, and military affairs. He is currently one of The Forum's business reporters.

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