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May 06, 2020 Feature

Judge Phyllis Kravitch

In 1979, Kravitch became the third woman to ever serve on a U.S. court of appeals.

Anne Emanuel

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Judge Phyllis Kravitch graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1943. She stood near the top of her class and was an editor of the law review. And yet, she not only did not receive any job offers—she did not even garner any job interviews.

Edwin Keedy, the law school’s dean, asked her permission to send her résumé to a firm that he thought was open to hiring a woman. The firm was—but Kravitch sounded Jewish, and that was another matter.

Illustration by Sean Kane

Illustration by Sean Kane

Dean Keedy then suggested she apply for a clerkship. She did, but no circuit court judges offered her an interview. She did interview with one district court judge who told her that he had no objection to a woman law clerk and that if he could not find a qualified male, he would hire her. She also had one interview at the U.S. Supreme Court. But there had never been a female clerk on the Supreme Court, and even Justice Frank Murphy—who while attorney general founded the forerunner to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—hesitated to break with that precedent.

So Phyllis returned to Savannah, where her father—Aaron Kravitch—maintained a small general practice. As soon as she arrived, he had her join him in court. The next day, the presiding judge called to tell him that every lawyer who had seen her complained, and the judge agreed—a courtroom was no place for a woman. Find work for her in the office, he directed. Aaron Kravitch heard him out and replied bluntly: “She’s been admitted to practice and the men will just have to get used to it.”

He was right; they did have to get used to it, as over the next few decades Phyllis and her father handled major cases of both political and economic gravity. At a time when few white lawyers in the South would represent black clients, they did. In 1946, they successfully represented a group of Savannah’s prominent black citizens seeking to register to vote in Democratic primaries. The next time Phyllis attended a bar association luncheon, she found herself alone at a table for eight. Among their other black clients was Myers Anderson, whose grandson Clarence Thomas now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1948, the Kravitches won a landmark victory in the U.S. Supreme Court for Georgia shrimpers who challenged South Carolina shrimping regulations. In 1961, they represented Richard J. Reynolds, one of the richest men in the country, in his divorce.

Nearly 30 years after her return to Savannah, Phyllis Kravitch became the first female president of the Savannah Bar Association, but only after pointedly refusing to accept an offer to be the bar association’s secretary, a position normally given to a lawyer right out of law school.

Soon thereafter, the Chatham County Courthouse was consumed by talk of who might run to succeed a retiring superior court judge. One day, another lawyer remarked to Phyllis: “If you weren’t a woman you’d be perfect.” She called him the next day: “You talked me into it.”

Phyllis turned down campaign contributions from lawyers and contributions of more than $100. She soon realized that, for the most part, lawyers are the only contributors to judicial campaigns. But she was able to mobilize support from decades of practicing law: Former clients would call to offer help, and she would ask them to invite their friends and neighbors over so that she could come talk to them. By the time of the election, she had met most of the voters in Chatham County. In 1976, she became the first woman elected to the superior court bench in Georgia. Two years later, President Carter nominated her for a seat on the Fifth Circuit.

Phyllis was surprised by the letter from the nomination commission explaining that several people had put forth her name and asking her to complete an application form. When she demurred—“The Fifth Circuit’s for the likes of Learned Hand and Elbert Tuttle”—her sister Sally had a ready response: “Learned Hand is dead and Elbert Tuttle is already on that court.”

After a little convincing from her sister, Phyllis filled in the forms and went to Atlanta to be interviewed by the nomination commission. While she waited in a courthouse anteroom for her interview, a committee member walking through asked her to fix him a cup of coffee. Phyllis told him that she’d be glad to, if only he’d be so kind as to show her where it was kept. He apologized once he realized she didn’t work at the courthouse. When the committee’s chairman introduced them later that day, Phyllis told him, “Oh, I think we’ve met.” At which point, the man who needed his coffee apologized again. The interview was quick, and in short order her nomination sailed through the Senate and she became the third woman appointed to a seat on a U.S. circuit court of appeals. (Florence Allen was appointed to the Sixth Circuit by FDR in 1934; Shirley Hufstedler was appointed by LBJ to the Ninth Circuit in 1968.)

Even after she was appointed to the bench, it took some time for Judge Kravitch to be recognized. Judge Kravitch was in New Orleans for her first sitting on the Fifth Circuit. It was raining. So she and her two women law clerks waited outside their hotel for a cab to take them to court. But as the hotel doorman started to usher them into a cab, two men with briefcases cut them off. “I’m sorry ladies, but we have important business.” An hour or so later, Phyllis Kravitch led her colleagues into the courtroom. There, sitting before her, were the men with important business.

At conference, the presiding judge was puzzled. “What in the world happened in that first argument,” he wondered. “That was one of the best briefs I’ve ever seen. I was looking forward to oral argument, but that lawyer was so nervous he could hardly put two sentences together.”

Phyllis Kravitch knew what had happened, but she remained silent. She never regretted her silence at conference. She did regret that she didn’t speak at the oral argument. It was her very first day, she often recalled. Had she only had a little more experience, she would have smiled at the attorneys and said: We met earlier; don’t worry about it, but you really shouldn’t steal a cab.

It was like her to take the insult in stride. It was like her to not let it change who she was or how she behaved. And it would have been like her to smile. She faced the world with that smile, a touch bemused and sometimes a trifle weary but always generous and rich with hard-earned wisdom.

Anne Emanuel

The author, professor emerita at Georgia State University College of Law and author of Elbert Parr Tuttle: Chief Jurist of the Civil Rights Revolution (2011), completed an oral history of Judge Kravitch for the ABA Women Trailblazers Project in 2013 (available online).