Phyllis Kravitch, trailblazing jurist in Georgia, dies at 96

June 19, 2017
Judge Phyllis A. Kravitch as a young lawyer and in her official portrait at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. (Images downloaded from American Bar Association, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals)

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.