It’s been 91 years since a woman was first named to the federal bench, but the idea of female judges continues to flummox an unfortunate few.
As ALM journalists in Miami and New York have reported in recent days, women jurists still endure the occasional faux pas—lawyers confusing them with clerks or someone saying after introductions, “You don’t look like a judge.”
But the late Judge Phyllis Kravitch of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit may have experienced the best female judge mix-up story in history.
Kravitch, who died in 2017 at age 96, was initially on the Fifth Circuit before Georgia, Florida and Alabama were carved out to create the Eleventh Circuit.
Early in her days on the Fifth Circuit, Kravitch was in New Orleans for oral arguments. It was raining heavily, and she and her staff waited in a long line at a hotel for a taxi. Just as they reached the front of the line, two men cut in front of them, one explaining he had an important engagement.
Kravitch and her staff caught the next cab, and a little while later, she looked down from the bench to see arguing before her … one of the men who commandeered the taxi.
In a 2008 Daily Report profile, Kravitch deflected a question about who won the case. As reported by the newspaper’s Alyson M. Palmer, the judge said only that “the lawyer appeared nervous and didn’t do well.”
In a 2009 article about an appearance by Kravitch at a legal community event, Palmer reported the judge regaled the crowd with more stories, including this one.
Not long after Kravitch became Georgia’s first female superior court judge, President Jimmy Carter’s nominating commission for the Fifth Circuit summoned her to the federal courthouse in Atlanta for an interview.
Kravitch recalled arriving early and a secretary telling her someone would be by to retrieve her in a few minutes. After the secretary stepped out, a man from Mississippi came by. He asked if Kravitch might bring a pot of coffee into the courtroom.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know where they keep the coffee here, but if you’ll show me, I’ll do my best.’ He said, ‘Don’t you work here?’ I said, ‘No, I was just waiting for an appointment.’”
A little later, the commission chairman came to get her, brought her into the courtroom where the commission was meeting and introduced her to the other members, including the man whom Kravitch referred to as “the coffee gentleman.”
“I said, ‘Oh, I think we’ve met.’”
The man’s face turned red. “I think I owe Judge Kravitch an apology and the rest of you an explanation,” she recalled the man responded. He tried to explain his mistake and received a lecture about stereotypes from a female member of the commission, Kravitch recalled.
She said she was glad it happened.
“Because he didn’t ask the first question,” she recalled, “and it broke the ice as far as I was concerned.”