Bruce Wright, judge

Bruce McMarion Wright (1917 – 2005) was a jurist who served on the New York State Supreme Court. Though he was born in Baltimore, he spent most of his adult life in Harlem. In 1939, he received a scholarship to  Princeton University, but was denied admission when he arrived and the university learned that he was black.  Notre Dame also denied him admission on the same grounds. He was able to study at Virginia Union University, and graduated from Lincoln University in 1942.

He served in the Army, in a segregated unit during World War II and eventually ended up in Paris. His early ambition to become a poet was fulfilled when he wrote “From the Shaken Tower.” The book was edited by Langston Hughes and published in 1944. He left poetry for Law and studied at Fordham University Law School, obtaining his law degree from New York Law School.

He was named general counsel for the New York City Human Resources Administration in 1967 and assigned to the bench for the first time in 1970, serving in the Criminal Court of New York City. Judge Wright was soon publicly critical of the judicial system and voiced his belief that race and class all too frequently determined the outcomes of trials. He denounced what he called racism in the criminal justice system, and created a furor by often setting low bail, and sometimes no bail, for poor or minority suspects.

His views and low bails made him unpopular with police officers and prosecutors and he was assigned to civil court. After a lawsuit, he was brought back to the criminal court. Throughout his career, Wright held onto his belief that the judicial system, including bail, was stacked against poor and minority defendants.

Judge Wright spent 25 years on the bench hearing criminal and civil cases. He was the author of a 1987 book, Black Robes, White Justice, about the role of race in the judicial system, which won a 1991 American Book Award. He later authored an autobiography, “Black Justice In A White World.” Sixty-five years after being denied admission to Princeton because of his race, he was made an honorary member of their Class of 2001.

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