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Champion of equality Judge Myron Bright dies at 97

Judge Myron Bright, 97, died early Monday morning, Dec. 12. Dave Wallis / The Forum

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 on the city’s south side.

“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. He was at the time of his passing the oldest currently serving federal judge in the country,” 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.

“This is one of the really last great people of his generation,” Golding said.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., praised Bright and his lifetime of service to the nation.

“Judge Bright’s empathy and compassion were unsurpassed – whether at home or in the courtroom,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “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. 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.”

Boulger Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Bright was born March 5, 1919, in Eveleth, Minn., the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He grew up on the Iron Range during the Great Depression, and he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of captain.

He married Louise Reisler in 1946, and they had two children.

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 Circuit appeals court.

By 2013, Bright estimated he had heard 7,000 cases and written 2,500 opinions – many of them dissents or separate concurrences – in his time on the bench. 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.

Judges often reflect the philosophies of the presidents who appoint them, and in a December 2010 interview, Bright said he was proud to have done so, too.

He and other Johnson appointees “worked unceasingly to batter down the prejudice against blacks and other minorities and women,” Bright said.

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.

In recent years, Bright said the nation needed to address the sentencing of large numbers of nonviolent drug offenders to prison, which cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually.

His efforts paid off. In 2013, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. Legal experts credited Bright with being one of the most influential judges in advocating an end to mandatory minimum sentencing.

“What shall I say? I got vindication,” he told The Forum in a 2013 interview.

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 I looked at the Walker case, it didn’t smell right,” Bright told The Forum, even though he at first regarded the appeal with skepticism.

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.

Bright’s parents emigrated from Russia and settled in Minnesota’s Iron Range, where his father first worked in the shipyards of Duluth.

His father later became a merchant, running a series of general merchandise stores in small towns. In 1927, he bought a store in Eveleth, Minn., where Bright grew up during the Great Depression.

The Iron Range communities then were comprised of immigrant workers: Finns, Italians, Slovenians and others from Eastern and Central Europe, including Russia.

“They all were interested in bettering themselves,” Bright said. “I was a first-generation American and so were all my friends. We all learned to live together and work together.”

Although Bright 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, with a heavy emphasis in trial work.

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, 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.

As a judge, Bright said he had the satisfaction of seeing many of the decisions he helped to mold become embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Often, the son of an immigrant storekeeper who repeatedly granted credit to jobless customers found himself siding with the disenfranchised while on the bench.

“I suppose I have a sympathetic heart, you might say,” Bright said, though he added that his decisions must be based on the law.

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

Arrangements are being handled by Boulger Funeral Home, Fargo.