JUDGE BRUCE MCMARION WRIGHT was appointed to the New York City Criminal Court bench by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1970. According to Wright, city officials were looking around for a black lawyer to appoint to a judgeship and somebody probably said, "Well, how about this Bruce Wright, he should be all right. He doesn't have a big Afro, he has a law office on Park Avenue, and he went to Yale Law School." "I guess I sort of surprised them," Wright says, smiling.
Today Wright is undoubtedly the most controversial judge in New York, and the continuing storm over many of his decisions has catapulted him into a national prominence unique for a municipal judge. The furor centers on the issue of bail. Wright contends that the present system of administering bail in American courts is unjust to the poor, specifically to blacks and other minority groups. He has made himself a one man force for bail reform, by invariably setting low bail for defendants of limited financial means who are arraigned before him. In a few widely publicized cases, such defendants have either jumped bail or committed crimes while free on bail, arousing the wrath of New York's politically influential Patrol man's Benevolent Association.
In one case, Wright released a man, accused of shooting and seriously wounding a policeman in a restaurant holdup, on five hundred dollars bail, only to have his bail decision overturned by a fellow Criminal Court judge. Wright questioned the right of the judge--theoretically his equal--to overrule him. But the PBA pressured then Mayor Lindsay into initiating an investigation of Wright's fitness to serve as a judge. Nothing came of the investigation.
WRIGHT HAS ALSO made himself a favorite target of the Daily News, the country's highest circulation newspaper, which dubbed him "cut 'em loose Bruce," and unleased a continuing editorial and cartoon barrage demanding his removal from the bench.
Wright remains unfazed by the often personal attacks. He holds that it is unfair to let those who can afford high bail buy their way out of pre-trial imprisonment while sending to jail those who cannot produce the money. He likens the bail system to the draft exemption laws which existed during the Civil War. "For three hundred dollars a man could purchase an exemption from conscription to the Union Army during the Civil War. In New York, for example, this meant that those who were sent off to die in the war were mostly the poor, notably immigrants. What resulted, of course, were draft riots, the victims of which were the blacks, since no one, not even a newly settled immigrant, wanted to fight for the "niggers." The bail system works in a remarkably similar way to those draft laws, although in this case, the blacks, among others, are the more direct victims."
Wright maintains that he applies standard judicial principles in setting bail. If a defendant appears to have "roots in society"--generally defined as having family in the local area or holding a job--Wright says bail should be set in accordance with his financial means, even if this means no bail. "Bail is not a fine, it is not intended to serve as a punishment," he says. "Bail is designed to insure appearance in court." He further charges that lengthy pre-trial incarceration violates the spirit of the constitution.
JUDGE WRIGHT does not believe that incidents of bail jumping or even of crimes committed while a defendant was free on bail, prove his bail policies invalid. He views the issue purely as a question of constitutionality, of equal justice, and holds that only by maintaining his present bail policy will he be correctly performing his duties as a judge. He describes his actions as part of a general effort to meet a need for what he terms "sociological jurisprudence"--which he says means that in order for a judge to dispense real justice, he must take into account the sociological backgrounds of those who appear before him.
Although bail reform has been Wright's most publicized cause, it is not his only one. He is also a proponent of requiring psycho-analysis of potential judges before they are appointed. "We judges are just ordinary people. We are not transformed by becoming judges and we take with us to the bench the same prejudices we held before."
"I realize that, considering the present crime situation, this is not the perfect time for a judge enforcing policies such as mine," Wright says. But he is confident that his performance on the bench has been just and constitutionally correct, and he believes that this will be more readily apparent in a calmer future.