You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.


  • ePAPER

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks


Welcome to

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on

Phyllis Kravitch, trailblazing jurist in Georgia, dies at 96

Diminutive in stature but a giant of the legal profession, Phyllis Kravitch bucked tradition, broke barriers and paved the way for countless women to become lawyers and judges across the South.

Kravitch died Thursday at Piedmont Hospital. She was 96.

Over the course of her career, Kravitch became one of the first women trial lawyers in the South, the first woman president of the Savannah Bar Association, the first woman Superior Court judge in Georgia and the first woman in the southeast — and the third nationwide — to become a federal appeals court judge.

She left an “indelible imprint” on the law of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases out of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, said her friend and colleague, Judge Charles Wilson.

“She was scrupulously fair and impartial — a person of great moral character and integrity,” Wilson said. “I often marveled at how she successfully navigated the dynamics of group decision-making in a male-dominated institution with intellectual brilliance, elegance and great distinction.”

Said 11th Circuit Judge Frank Hull: “There is no woman lawyer or jurist in Georgia … who has done more to blaze the trail for women in our state.”

Kravitch, who stood barely five feet tall, grew up in Savannah and was greatly influenced by her father, Aaron Kravitch. A prominent local attorney, he strongly believed everyone — rich or poor, black or white — deserved quality legal representation.

When she was about 13, Kravitch showed up at the courthouse one day to watch her dad argue a case. But the trial judge ordered her to leave, saying a courtroom was no place for a young girl, Norman Zoller, the 11th Circuit’s former clerk., said.

But when one of her father’s employees, who was African-American, heard what had happened, “he quietly escorted her to the balcony reserved for black spectators, where she watched the trial, unseen from below,” Zoller said.

Even though few women practiced law in the South when she graduated from college, Kravitch decided to become an attorney. She applied at a number of prestigious law schools, yet many turned her down because they didn’t accept women. The University of Pennsylvania Law School, however, did accept her and she graduated second in her class in 1943.

Kravitch then sought jobs at about two dozen law firms but was rejected by all of them, principally because she was both Jewish and a woman, Zoller said.

So Kravitch returned home and practiced law with her father. Among the cases they brought was a lawsuit to allow African-Americans the right to vote in the local Democratic primary.

In 1949, Phyllis Kravitch became a member of the Chatham County Board of Education, where she worked to force the board to stop using dilapidated schools for black students.

In 1976, Kravitch won election to the Superior Court bench in Savannah. Three years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the federal appeals court bench, where she presided over notable cases involving free speech, gay rights and employment discrimination.

In 1992, Kravitch dissented when the court allowed the Georgia Republican Party to exclude former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke from its presidential primary ballot on grounds his candidacy would bring shame to the party.

Wrote Kravitch: “No political body … has a constitutional right to freedom from embarrassment or adverse publicity.”

Kravitch had a good sense of humor, Ed Carnes, the 11th Circuit’s chief judge, said.

She was known as a jurist who was sympathetic to the arguments made by criminal defendants, while Carnes was quite the opposite. During one court sitting in the 1990s, they considered appeals of seven criminal cases.

Yet after hearing arguments in those cases, they both agreed that three of the convictions should be overturned and the other four should be upheld. Kravitch, who got to decide who wrote the opinions, assigned herself the task of affirming the four convictions and surprised Carnes by having him write the three to be reversed.

“That ought to keep them guessing,” Kravitch said, when explaining the unexpected, Carnes recalled.

Kravitch is survived by two sisters, Bernice Mazo of Atlanta and Sally Scharf of New York. There will be a private burial service in Savannah, and a memorial service will be held in Atlanta in the coming weeks, said Kravitch’s nephew, Aaron Scharf, of Pelham, N.Y.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Macon women’s college seeks to atone for Ku Klux Klan’s legacy
Macon women’s college seeks to atone for Ku Klux Klan’s legacy

Like other first year students corralled in Wesleyan College’s auditorium in Macon, Dana Amihere didn’t know what to make of the spectacle unfolding on stage. It was fall 2006 and the freshman had been awakened in the dead of night. A group of sophomores stood on stage yelling, screaming and cheering as part of a hazing ritual that seemed...
Colleges seek to confront legacy of racism
Colleges seek to confront legacy of racism

Brown University in Providence, R.I., became the first college to acknowledge it links to slavery in 2003. In 2011, Emory University’s trustees acknowledged connections to slavery and expressed regret for “this undeniable wrong.” They also expressed regret for decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy. Emory...
At Issue: Should legislator be compelled to be part of MLK statue?
At Issue: Should legislator be compelled to be part of MLK statue?

A member of the State Legislature wants no part of bringing a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. to capitol grounds. State Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) doesn’t want his name included on a plaque that will accompany a statue of King that will soon be unveiled at the state capitol. “I want everybody name who was associated with the statue...
Police increase reward in DeKalb man’s murder
Police increase reward in DeKalb man’s murder

With few clues, Doraville police announced an increased reward for information leading to an arrest in the murder of Clarence "Alex" Maddox.  Maddox, 38, was found dead in the 3900 block of Flowers Road on May 30. He was shot twice in the stomach and left in a parking lot near Buford Highway Farmers Market and a DeKalb County Schools...
Prison guard has inmate’s baby, pleads guilty to oath violation
Prison guard has inmate’s baby, pleads guilty to oath violation

After having a sexual relationship with an inmate in 2016, a former prison guard on Monday pleaded guilty to violating her oath of office.  Deenesha Lemandy Carter, 23, worked as a corrections officer at Central State Prison, where an inmate impregnated her, the Macon Telegraph reported. Walter Lee Harris, an inmate serving a life sentence for...
More Stories