Bruce McMarion Wright Biography
New York State Supreme Court justice, writer
"Black judges in this country are a very lonely caucus," New York State Supreme Court justice Bruce McMarion Wright told Les Payne in a 1991 interview for Essence. A highly controversial figure dubbed "Turn-Em-Loose Bruce" during his career on the bench of New York City's criminal court, Wright devoted his life to delineating the two systems of justice he believed existed in the United States—one for the white and privileged, and another for people of color and the poor. His best-selling book Black Robes, White Justice addresses this issue. Payne described Wright—who was also a poet and decorated war veteran—as "both praised and damned as a keen analyzer of judicial practices, especially as they touch the lives of African-Americans who come before the bar."
Wright was born December 19, 1918, in Princeton, New Jersey. A bright student, he entered Virginia State University in 1936. But when he devised a pun that read "Religion Weak," instead of "Religion Week," for a headline in the school newspaper—the editorial adjustment an early indication of his maverick nature—Wright was expelled from school. He applied to Princeton University, from which he won a scholarship in 1939. But, according to Wright, he was discouraged from attending by a note from the dean of admissions. Wright says the note acknowledged that the school did not practice any form of discrimination but stipulated that Wright might feel uncomfortable at Princeton, where there were no black students.
Eventually enrolled at Lincoln University, Wright chose to become a doctor. He was unable, however, to make an incision on an anesthetized rabbit during a premedical course and thus decided to study law. He graduated from college in 1942 and promptly entered the U.S. Army. Serving as a private in the 26th infantry regiment, Wright was awarded several medals for valor in World War II, including the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. He left the service in 1946. According to Wright, he met poet and future first president of Senegal Leopold Senghor while AWOL from the army in Paris in the months following World War II. "I was introduced to him as an American poet," Wright recounted to Payne; Wright's book of poems From the Shaken Tower had been edited by acclaimed African-American writer Langston Hughes and published in 1944. Wright told Payne: "All I ever wanted to be in life was a poet."
Upon his return to the United States in 1946, Wright enrolled at New York University to continue his law studies. For four years he worked during the day and took courses at night. During his last year of law school, Wright accepted a legal clerkship at the prestigious New York City law firm Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn. When Wright passed the bar examination in 1950, he consulted the managing partner about his future with the company. According to Wright, he was apologetically dissuaded from considering further prospects with the firm. Wright went on to work in estates, appeals, and some civil rights cases at several black law firms in the years that followed. In 1967 he began working for New York City's Human Resources Administration.
Wright was appointed to New York City's criminal court in 1970 by then-Mayor John V. Lindsay. In that post, Wright was markedly outspoken on civil rights issues. And in numerous public speeches, he defended his belief that bail should not be a means of detaining the accused until trial, but a way to ensure the accused's appearance in court. His position was unpopular with the New York City police department; when in the early 1970s Wright set bail at $5,000 for a man accused of shooting a policeman, a former head of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association called Wright one of the best friends criminals ever had. Wright stated in People : "The Eighth Amendment says bail should not be excessive. So what is excessive? If you come into my court and you have one penny, and my bail is two cents, that's excessive. … If [the accused] has roots in the community, there is no high bail. … Their families and friends live in the community, and they stay for that reason."
Wright's position brought consequences and he was reassigned to civil court in 1974. But by 1978 he was reinstated to the criminal courtroom. Investigated by the New York City Appellate Division's Judiciary Relations Committee several times, allegations of misconduct over the years failed to deter him. Little official censure had actually taken place, though in 1975 Wright was admonished for treating a policeman too roughly for having drawn his gun on a man accused of a traffic violation. In fact, studies by the New York Bar Association revealed that Wright's low bail pronouncements resulted in no fewer appearances of defendants in court than had the higher bails posted by his fellow judges. "Despite the fact that I'm known as a bleeding heart," Wright told People, "I look with horror on burglaries, assaults, and the like. I've been burglarized seven times myself. One day I came home and the entire wall was broken down—it looked like a bomb had hit the place."
Wright was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in 1983. Four years later he penned his book Black Robes, White Justice. New York Review of Books contributor Andrew Hacker was critical of Wright's premise, stating: "Wright does not explain just how he came to conclude that resentment against white society accounts for blacks' crimes against whites; and he wholly ignores crimes committed within black communities." Wright stated in his book, as reported by Hacker, that "black defendants often [receive] much harsher sentences than whites convicted of identical crimes." Though Hacker saw truth in Wright's contention, admitting, "There is such a double standard," he found fault with the justice for merely relying on his observations while on the bench and not presenting statistical evidence to support his claim. Despite this critic's challenge, Black Robes, White Justice became a best-seller.
Appraising the American judicial system, Wright disclosed in Essence, "We have to change the thinking of white America. In my view, Black Americans have been heroic in trying to civilize white Americans. And we've tried to do it with their own Constitution, and its amendments. … We've tried to explain to white people the true meaning of the Constitution." Wright spent his career trying to do just that, standing up to critics and other opponents his entire career. John Sheehan, who worked as a clerk for Wright during the 1970s, admired Wright's ability to weather his critics' complaints. Sheehan told the Daily Princetonian that Wright received hate mail daily "from police offices, from other people who disliked him. … This went on every day for all of the two years I worked for him and probably continued until he retired." Attorney Robert Van Lierop related in the Amsterdam News that "For him to challenge the system and to uphold the Constitution was very courageous."
Wright retired from his 25-year judicial career on the State Supreme Court in 1994. His health failed him in 2000, when he suffered a heart attack. At the age of 86, he died in his sleep on March 24, 2005. Sheehan remembered his friend to the Daily Princetonian as "a giant" who was "not given enough credit for the work that he did in his community and for being the symbol that he was." Former New York Mayor David Dinkins recalled Wright to the Amsterdam News as "one of my heroes, a legal scholar, and probably a genius," adding: "He will be sorely missed."
From the Shaken Tower (poetry), edited by Langston Hughes, [England], 1944.
(With Hughes and others) Lincoln University Poets (poetry anthology), 1954.
Repetitions (poetry), 1980.
Black Robes, White Justice, Lyle Stuart, 1987.
Amsterdam News, March 31, 2005.
Essence, November 1981; November 1991.
New York Review of Books, March 3, 1988.
New York Times, March 26, 2005.
New York Times Biographical Service, April 1979.
People, April 17, 1978.
"Activist Judge Wright Dies," Daily Princetonian, www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2005/03/28/news/12456.shtml (June 6, 2005).
—Marjorie Burgess and
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