Senior U.S. District Judge John McBryde of Fort Worth was old school and hardcore, viewed as the epitome of a federal judge and always regarded as the lord of his courtroom.
Some criminal defense lawyers compared him to the hanging judges of the Wild West because of the lengthy prison sentences he handed down. Some legal advocates complained that he was a tyrant on the bench who was too quick to sanction lawyers for their conduct. Even some fellow federal jurists thought he was rude and guilty of conduct unbecoming of a judge.
Judge McBryde, in an interview with The Texas Lawbook in 2014, scoffed at such comments.
“My job is simple: I review the facts and I apply the law, and no one will ever accuse me of being ill-prepared or misunderstood,” he said.
Judge McBryde, appointed to the federal bench in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, died Sunday. He was 91.
For every lawyer who complained, there were several who spoke up in his defense, praising him for championing the rule of law and the right to trail by jury.
“Judge McBryde was a unique, one-of-a-kind lawyer and judge who engendered fear and respect,” Dee Kelly, a partner at Kelly, Hart & Hallman, said in an interview Monday. “He and my dad practiced together as young, aspiring lawyers at Cantey Hanger.”
“Judge McBryde could be very intimating to young lawyers, but he was clever and funny,” said Kelly, whose father, Dee Kelly Sr., was the founder of Kelly Hart. “He and my dad told a lot of funny stories about each other.”
Northern District of Texas Chief Judge David Godbey told The Lawbook that he “was fortunate to serve alongside Judge McBryde for over 20 years.”
“He will be missed,” Judge Godbey said.
Other colleagues agree.
“Judge McBryde was always gracious and nice to me,” U.S. District Judge Karen Gren Scholer said. “He liked that I was a former trial lawyer [and] showed me his magnificent courtroom and cigar box collection in chambers when I went to visit him after being sworn in as his NDTX colleague.
“Though some were intimidated by him, lawyers knew they would do fine in his court if they were efficient and knew the rules,” Judge Scholer said.
“John McBryde can be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is as honest as any federal judge I have ever met and I know my client will get a fair trial if I do my job,” Joe Jamail, the great Houston trial lawyer, told The Texas Lawbook in an interview in 2013.
Holland & Knight partner David Schulte remembers his clerkship interview with Judge McBryde shortly after Christmas 2000.
“The interview is still a blur,” Schulte said. “But I remember that after about 10 minutes, Judge McBryde stood up and said, ‘Well, I think I’ve heard about enough,’ and the interview was over. I thought I blew it. The next day I received a call from Judge McBryde, offering me the clerkship. He said he’d like to hear back within a week. I accepted on the spot.”
Schulte said his 2002-03 clerkship with Judge McBryde two decades ago “was the best job I’ve ever had, and he was the best boss I ever had.”
“I saw how smart he was and how deeply he cared about the rule of law and making the right decision in every case,” Schulte said. “I saw his dedication to thorough legal research and his attention to every factual detail. Judge McBryde knew the cases just as well as, if not better than, the lawyers. What a great judge and lawyer to learn from.”
Judge McBryde was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He went to college at Texas Christian University and law school at the University of Texas.
In 1990, then-President Bush nominated McBryde to replace retiring U.S. District Judge Eldon Brooks Mahon. Then-U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden gave McBryde the thumbs up, and he was unanimously confirmed.
After five years on the Northern District of Texas bench, Judge McBryde received numerous complaints from lawyers before him regarding allegedly abusive conduct. Then-Chief Judge Henry Politz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit appointed a special committee of the Fifth Circuit Judicial Counsel to investigate.
On Dec. 31, 1997, the Fifth Circuit committee issued a public reprimand to Judge McBryde.
Judge McBryde was back in the news in 2012 when he was the target of a murder-for-hire plot by a man pending trial in his courtroom for tax fraud. The defendant was convicted.
Legal experts also say that Judge McBryde was ahead of his time in 2018 when he expressed open concern about the constitutionality of administrative law judges in Cochran v. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The Fifth Circuit agreed with Judge McBryde’s concerns, ruling 9-7 that federal district judges have subject matter jurisdiction to hear constitutional challenges.
“For more than 30 years, lawyers knew that when they appeared in Judge McBryde’s court they needed to be prepared and follow the rules,” said Paul Genender, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “I appreciated that the rules were clearly established, and you could then practice law from that foundation. In and of itself, that is a powerful legacy to leave behind.”