By Taylor Meehan and Kasdin M. Mitchell
Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. became Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in June 2020, making him the highest-ranking officer of his court. It’s not exactly where a young Bill Pryor thought his career would take him. The Mobile-born son of a band director was more likely to make a career in music than as a lawyer, let alone as one of the most prominent federal judges in the country.
Partway through college, Pryor changed course from music major to legal studies. In law school, he graduated in the top of his class and was elected editor-in-chief of the Tulane Law Review. He then clerked for a civil rights hero, Judge John Minor Wisdom. His own clerkship with Judge Wisdom was transformative. So much of Pryor’s career can be traced back to Wisdom, one of the Fifth Circuit judges who was instrumental in dismantling segregation in the Deep South.
What came next for Pryor is the stuff of a great screenplay: Alabama Attorney General by age 34, the youngest in the country at the time; involved in the prosecutions of two Ku Klux Klan murderers who perpetrated the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings; prosecuted former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore after he defied a federal court order; and nominated to the federal bench by age 40.
His nomination was not without drama. Pryor’s Senate confirmation hearing was held 40 years to the day that Governor Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door and declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Alabama Democrats, including former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, former U.S. Attorney and Senator Doug Jones, and state representative Alvin Holmes, joined with Alabama Republicans to support Pryor’s nomination. His supporters praised him specifically for his contributions to the great progress made by the state in those four decades. They repeated Pryor’s memorable rejoinder to Wallace–“Equal under law today, equal under law tomorrow, equal under law forever”–delivered in Pryor’s second inaugural address as attorney general.1 They spoke of Pryor’s leadership in bringing criminal sentencing reform to Alabama–a harbinger for Pryor’s later service on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. They highlighted that Pryor personally argued before the Alabama appeals court to uphold the conviction of one of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers. And they commended Pryor for authoring the legislation to make cross-burning a felony and for leading the long-overdue effort to erase an old ban on interracial marriage from Alabama’s constitution.
Pryor was unlike many recent judicial nominees. He had not carefully planned his life to position himself to become a federal judge. His personal beliefs were well-known. He had spent years as a politician. He was “no shrinking violet,” in the words of then-Senate Judiciary Chair Orrin Hatch.
Pryor’s judicial philosophy has been that judges have no authority to use personal beliefs “to update or alter the text of our Constitution and laws.”3 When it comes to the “business of using moral judgment to change the law,” that “is reserved to the political branches” or “the real lawmaker,” in Pryor’s words.4 Pryor’s faith, in particular the Catholic teaching to obey government and its laws, reinforces that judicial philosophy. “When I placed my left hand on the Holy Bible and swore to ‘perform all the duties incumbent upon me as United States Circuit Judge under the Constitution and laws of the United States,’” Pryor wrote shortly after becoming a judge, “my conscience was and remains affected by my religious beliefs. Were it not so, what would be the point of placing my hand on the Bible or ending the oath with the declaration, ‘So Help Me God’?”5
Senate Democrats filibustered Pryor’s nomination, along with others. During a Senate recess, President Bush installed Pryor as a recess appointee to the Eleventh Circuit. He spent those next months in Birmingham setting up his judicial chambers, not sure what would follow in Washington. The Senate ultimately confirmed Pryor by a vote of 53 to 45. He was part of a deal struck by the so-called “Gang of 14”–a group of 14 bi-partisan senators who agreed to end the filibuster of Pryor’s nomination and confirm him, on the condition that the filibuster would remain for future nominees. The roll call vote hangs in his chambers.
Now more than 15 years later, Pryor has authored hundreds of opinions. Among them are his many majority opinions for the en banc court,6 a school desegregation dispute that Judge Wisdom first ruled on decades ago (“Dilatory tactics and half-hearted efforts slowed the pace of desegregation”7), and memorable concurring and dissenting opinions (“Our duty is not to reach the outcomes we think will please whomever comes to sit on the court of human history”8). He has hired more than 60 law clerks, five of whom have gone on to become judges themselves. Beyond chambers, he has taught federal jurisdiction and statutory interpretation for more than a decade at the University of Alabama and Cumberland law schools. He lectures regularly across the country and has been published by more than a dozen law reviews. He has participated in the American Law Institute, including as an adviser for the Restatement on Conflicts of Law, and recently co-authored a treatise of judicial precedent. He has been considered a potential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he is no less a rabid Alabama football fan now than he was as a kid.
His chambers, now well lived-in, tells the story of his most remarkable career. Visitors sit across from a photo of Pryor on Air Force One with senior Bush administration officials and next to a photo of Pryor with Obama and his former U.S. Sentencing Commission colleagues. In the kitchen there are political cartoons, kind and unkind. The sketch from his Supreme Court argument sits on the floor of the coat closet. And back in his office, commissions from two presidents hang across from busts of Hamilton and Reagan, an area devoted to the University of Alabama football, and a stack of opinion drafts ready for more and more rounds of the judge’s handwritten edits.
But the first and last thing any visitor will see are the photos of every law clerk class that hang at the entrance to his chambers.
As a boss, Pryor is tough, honest, and exacting. He gives incoming clerks a two-inch-thick manual full of idiosyncrasies and expectations, some adopted from Judge Wisdom himself: “For you, footnotes do not exist.” “Protestors ‘demonstrate,’ not litigants…” “‘In the light of,’ is a cast-iron idiom; ‘in light of’ is unacceptable.” “Prefer the short word to a longer synonym.” New Orleans is pronounced “New Aw-lee-uns, not New Orlins, as you hear it on TV, and not New Orleens.”9 And he holds his clerks to the highest standards. Every piece of paper that leaves his chambers–even a routine order–deserves full attention. He exchanges dozens of draft opinions with his clerks.
Pryor asks the same from his clerks in return. He does not hire “yes men.” At the very first lunch, he tells his clerks he did not hire them to tell him what he wants to hear. It is
their job to tell him what they really think, backed by exhaustive research and analysis. He invites his clerks to disagree with him and each other. There is no pride of authorship; what matters is getting it right. But his process works only if everyone in chambers trusts each other.
Pryor eats lunch with his clerks nearly every day, working through his weekly rotation of Birmingham staples beginning with barbecue on Monday and ending with fish on Friday. The lunches are ordinarily full of storytelling, be it about Pryor’s own career or politics, or Alabama history. Pryor opens his home for dinner. Clerks join him at Alabama football games, spin class, and Mass. He attends (and has officiated) their weddings. He always asks about their families. A clerkship with Pryor is coveted not just because young lawyers know they will be trained by him, but also because they know he will invest in them–as people, and as future leaders of the profession.
His investment has paid off. This year alone, he has five former clerks–more than any other judge in the country–clerking for justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, four of his former law clerks are federal judges, including one on Pryor’s court. One is a state supreme court justice. Another is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Four have served as state solicitors general. Nearly a dozen have held other posts in federal and state government, including at the White House. And still others have joined the nation’s best law firms, law schools, companies, and nonprofits. He often jokes that his former law clerks would compose the best law firm in the country.
Pryor’s new post as Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit is one more step in his remarkable career. He no doubt will lead his court with the same devotion and integrity that guided his career so far. As then-Senator Sessions put it more than 15 years ago, “Bill is one of the good guys. He does the right thing.”
1 https://www.congress.gov/108/chrg/CHRG-108shrg91200/CHRG-108shrg91200.htm (statement of Sen. Jeff Sessions). 2 https://www.congress.gov/108/chrg/CHRG-108shrg91200/CHRG-108shrg91200.htm (statement of Sen. Orrin Hatch). 3 Pryor, The Religious Faith and Judicial Duty of an American Catholic Judge, 24 Yale L. & Policy Rev. 347, 357 (2006). 4 Id. at 357; https://www.congress.gov/108/chrg/CHRG-108shrg91200/CHRG-108shrg91200.htm (response to Sen. John Cornyn). 5 Pryor, The Religious Faith and Judicial Duty of an American Catholic Judge, 24 Yale L. & Policy Rev. at 351. 6 See, e.g., Jones v. Governor of Florida, 975 F. 3d 1016 (11th Cir. 2020) (en banc); United States v. Johnson, 921 F. 3d 991 (11th Cir. 2019) (en banc); Graham v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 857 F. 3d 1169 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc); McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Indus-Suncoast, Inc., 851 F. 3d 1076 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc); Evans v. Sec’y, Dept. of Corrections, 703 F. 3d 1316 (11th Cir. 2013) (en banc); First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando, Fla., 638 F. 3d 756 (11th Cir. 2011) (en banc); United States v. Svete, 556 F. 3d 1157 (11th Cir. 2009); Tanner Advertising Group, L.L.C. v. Fayette County, Ga., 451 F. 3d 777 (11th Cir. 2006) (en banc). 7 Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, 882 F. 3d 988, 992 (11th Cir. 2018). 8 Jones, 975 F. 3d at 1050. 9 Wisdom’s Idiosyncrasies, 109 Yale L. J. 1273, 1273-1277 (2000). 10 https://www.congress.gov/108/chrg/CHRG-108shrg91200/CHRG-108shrg91200.htm (statement of Sen. Jeff Sessions).