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William C. Pryor, longtime judge in D.C. courts, dies at 88

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/22/2020 Matt Schudel

William C. Pryor, who served on the D.C. bench for half a century, including a four-year stint in the 1980s as chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, died Nov. 19 at an assisted-living facility in Silver Spring, Md. He was 88.

The cause was renal failure, said his son Stephen Pryor.

Judge Pryor, who grew up amid segregation in Washington, was appointed to the old D.C. Court of General Sessions — now called the D.C. Superior Court — in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Judges for D.C. courts are appointed by the president, with advice from local authorities.)

He took his seat on the bench soon after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as Washington erupted in rioting and unrest.

“The city really was on fire,” Judge Pryor said in a 1995 interview with the D.C. Bar. “The situation was so volatile that there were armed guards posted outside my house.”

He said some of the defendants brought before him were “people that I had gone to grade school and high school with.” He understood that social tensions “had been percolating for a long time,” but he recognized that his job as a judge was to uphold the law.

“I felt it was important to make a clear distinction: rioting and looting was not an expression of civil rights, nor was it an appropriate form of protest,” he said. “It was criminal conduct.”

For the next 20 years as a full-time judge, followed by another 30 on part-time senior status, Judge Pryor built a reputation as a low-key, moderate jurist. He seldom handled high-profile cases, presiding mostly over such day-to-day concerns as criminal offenses, commercial contracts, landlord-tenant disputes, juvenile and domestic matters.

“I think I derived my greatest satisfaction from being able to get heated-up, angry people to calm down, and walk away from the court without feeling frustrated and angered,” he said in the D.C. Bar interview. “That’s not the kind of thing that makes the newspaper, but I did enjoy the human uplift derived from getting people to reach some sort of an accommodation.”

In 1979, Judge Pryor was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the D.C. Court of Appeals — the District’s equivalent of a state supreme court. Five years later, he was named chief judge of the nine-judge court. When he formally retired in 1988, colleagues “credited Pryor with a calm and mannerly personality that helped create harmony in the dual appellate and trial court system,” a Washington Post article noted.

Judge Pryor continued to hear appellate cases as a senior judge until 2019. The current chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, said in an interview that Judge Pryor was “a beloved friend and colleague to me and so many judges, law clerks and staff at our court. He always had a kind word and always took time to listen and to mentor others.”

After teaching law at Georgetown and George Washington universities earlier in his career, Judge Pryor joined the law school faculty of the University of the District of Columbia in 1988. He taught criminal law and other courses until 2018.

From 2001 to 2019, Judge Pryor also worked as a mediator for the McCammon Group, a Richmond-based firm that hires retired judges and experienced lawyers to settle legal disputes out of court.

“What a treasure that man was,” John McCammon, the firm’s founder, said in an interview, calling Judge Pryor “the most self-effacing person I have ever met.”

“He really became an anchor for us,” McCammon added. “He was a man of incredible depth, the voice or reason, the voice of wisdom. The humanity dripping off that man was just incredible.”

William Cornet Pryor was born May 29, 1932, in Washington. Both of his parents worked for the U.S. Mint.

Judge Pryor attended segregated D.C. schools before completing high school at what is now Northfield Mount Hermon, a private boarding school in Massachusetts. He graduated in 1954 from Dartmouth College, where he was a member of the basketball and tennis teams. He had thoughts of becoming a doctor until he switched his attention to law school, inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that banned segregation in public schools.

After two years in the Army, he entered law school at Georgetown University. After graduating in 1959, he was not offered a job by any large law firm in Washington.

“I was told — both directly and indirectly — that race was a factor,” Judge Pryor said.

He went to work for the U.S. Justice Department and later gained the attention of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who encouraged him to become a courtroom litigator. He later spent two years as a corporate lawyer with the old Bell Telephone Co. in Cleveland before returning to Washington in 1967 to become an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

In 1982, Judge Pryor received a master of laws degree from the University of Virginia.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Elaine Bruce Pryor, a retired educator, of Silver Spring; two sons, William B. Pryor of Buffalo and Stephen B. Pryor of Boston; and four grandchildren.

In the D.C. Bar interview, Judge Pryor recalled that he was playing basketball at the YMCA on a Saturday morning when he received an urgent call from his wife, telling him that President Johnson wanted to see him at the White House at once. She brought him a suit and tie, but not a pair of dark socks.

“So I showered and hurried down to the White House to meet the president — unshaven and wearing dirty white gym socks,” Judge Pryor said. “I was ushered in, and President Johnson looked me over. He looked at the socks, but didn’t mention them. I said, ‘Mr. President it is my pleasure to be here. I hope you understand that half an hour ago I was playing basketball.’”

It was then that Johnson offered him a position as a judge.

Read more Washington Post obituaries

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a group of people posing for a photo: William C. Pryor, former chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, with his wife, Elaine in an undated photo. © Family photo William C. Pryor, former chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, with his wife, Elaine in an undated photo.
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