Judge William C. Pryor, a professor at UDC Law from 1988 until his retirement in 2018, died Nov. 19 in Silver Spring, Md.
The 88-year-old judge served on the D.C. bench for half a century, including as a Senior Judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals where he heard cases through 2019. A native Washingtonian, Judge Pryor brought an extensive legal knowledge to students through his work with the Department of Justice, Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and Bell Telephone Companies. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Judge Pryor to the District of Columbia Court of General Sessions (now Superior Court) bench in 1968, and President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the D.C. Court of Appeals in 1979. He was named chief judge five years later.
Pryor was a beloved member of the faculty throughout his time at UDC Law. Judge Pryor embodied the soul of UDC Law, explaining in his interview at then-D.C. School of Law that he wanted to teach at a school where students who could not otherwise afford to go to law school would have that chance. Judge Pryor’s office door was always open for students to discuss the law, reaffirming his deep commitment to their success.
The University honored Judge Pryor with the Dr. Paul Phillips Cooke Lifetime Achievement Award for that commitment in 2011, and he was an honoree at the first annual UDC Law gala in 2017.
William C. Pryor was born May 29, 1932, in Washington and attended elementary and junior high school when the District’s public school system was still segregated. He began his high school years at Dunbar High School before moving to what is now Northfield Mount Hermon School, a boarding school in Massachusetts.
Pryor played basketball and tennis at Dartmouth College where he was a pre-med student, and Pryor joined the army to fulfill an R.O.T.C. obligation after he graduated in 1954. The decision in Brown v. Board of Education came that same year, and he credits it in part with his decision to go to law school after the army.
The impact of Brown coupled with growing up in segregated Washington before moving to New England helped shape Pryor’s path, inspiring him to pursue a legal education at Georgetown, one of the first law schools to accept students of color. Pryor graduated in 1959.
He told the D.C. Bar in 1995, “The social conditions were very different here in Washington than they were in New England, where I went to school. I was struck by the fact that I was living in two different worlds. That was very unsettling. With the Brown decision I could see that things were changing – a lot of social questions needed to be resolved. As much as anything, I think the Brown decision got me to start thinking about becoming a lawyer. I vividly remember reading the decision and having a sense of the profound impact that law can have on society.”
After Georgetown Law, Pryor was unable to find work as an attorney in the public sector. “I was told – both directly and indirectly – that race was a factor,” said Pryor, according to The Washington Post. He then took a job with the United States Department of Justice Civil Division where Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urged him to become a courtroom litigator. Pryor’s next step was a two-year stint with Bell Telephone Co. in Cleveland, and in 1967, he returned to Washington with the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
Just four months after Pryor returned to D.C., President Johnson called him to the White House and appointed him to the District of Columbia Court of General Sessions (now Superior Court of the District of Columbia). Pryor recounted the story in the D.C. Bar’s Bar Report.
“I was playing basketball one Saturday morning at the YMCA, when I got a telephone call from my wife. She told me that President Johnson wanted to see me at the White House, which was only a couple of blocks from the YMCA. She brought me a change of clothes, but she didn’t think to bring me a razor or socks. So I showered and hurried down to the White House to meet the president – unshaven and wearing dirty white gym socks,” 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.’”
Judge Pryor’s appointment coincided with the height of the Civil Rights movement; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated only days before Pryor began serving on the bench. Many of the first cases he heard were connected to the 1968 riots in Washington, and several of the defendants were people from backgrounds similar to Pryor’s, including a handful of his schoolmates. “Suddenly, I was thrust into this very tense situation where I had to make decisions that had a direct bearing on their lives,” he said.
Pryor’s empathy and fairness remained evident throughout his time on the Superior Court and into his move in 1979 to the D.C. Court of Appeals. In 1982, Judge Pryor completed a Master of Laws degree at the University of Virginia School of Law, and in 1988, he joined the faculty at UDC Law, where he carried that empathy and fairness into his work with law students. He had previously taught at both the Georgetown University Law Center and The George Washington University Law School. “My students help me to be a better judge. With their eager freshness they ask questions that no one would ever raise in the courthouse,” he said in the 1995 D.C. Bar interview. “Their interest and their energy forces me to stay current. I wish every judge could be a professor because there’s no doubt in my mind that it does help you to be a better judge.”
William C. Pryor is survived by his wife Elaine, his two sons William and Stephen and four grandchildren. Pryor met Elaine Bruce at Banneker Junior High School in 1945, and the couple remained together while Pryor was at boarding school in New England and throughout his undergraduate years at Dartmouth. During his army service, he asked Bruce to join him overseas in Paris, where he proposed, and the couple got married in France in 1955. The Pryors returned to the United States in 1956, and Mrs. Pryor began her graduate study at The George Washington University while the future Judge Pryor started law school at Georgetown Law. A gifted athlete, Judge Pryor continued playing basketball and tennis throughout his life.
In the Washington Post obituary, the family explained that, “due to the ongoing pandemic, a celebration of life will be held at a later date yet to be determined and interment will be held privately.”