Judge Phyllis Kravitch, U.S Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Judge Phyllis Kravitch, U.S Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ()

If there is a central theme to the recollections shared by those who knew Judge Phyllis Kravitch, it’s of a towering intellect embodied in a gracious, diminutive Southern lady.

Kravitch died Thursday at Piedmont Hospital at age 96.

“Physically, she was so tiny that, for people who didn’t know her, it was easy to overlook her at first,” said Mercer University law professor Tim Floyd, who clerked for Kravitch more than 35 years ago. “But you didn’t have to be around her long to know you’d never overlook her again. She had a powerful presence, even if people didn’t notice it right off.”

“She was a remarkable woman in so many ways,” agreed Norman Zoller, who first met Kravitch when he was named court clerk to the newly created Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1981, where Kravitch served after moving from the old Fifth Circuit when it was split.

“She was so small in stature, but I like to say she was a giant in terms of her approach to the law, her interest in civil rights and her commitment to social justice,” said Zoller, who clerked for more than two years before being named circuit executive for the court, where he stayed another 25 years.

U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni of New York’s Southern District, one of Kravitch’s first clerks, said it was a “phenomenal” experience.”

“She used to say we laughed our way, ate our way and worked our way through that first year—in that order,” recalled Caproni. “She had a million stories, and she loved telling them.”

“She’d practiced with her dad in Savannah, and they had a fascinating private practice,” Caproni said. “She talked about representing everyone, from poor black defendants who couldn’t afford a lawyer up to and including R.J. Reynolds.”

The daughter of Savannah attorney Aaron Kravitch, Phyllis Kravitch attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania—one of the few law schools that admitted women in 1941, she recalled in a 2013 interview with Georgia State University law professor Anne Emanuel—where she was among the top in her class and worked as an editor of the law review.

Upon graduating, she interviewed for a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court but was told a male would be given preference, because “there had never been a female clerk.”

She was similarly passed over for a male when she applied for a district court clerkship, and so she began practicing with her father in 1944.

Aaron Kravitch was one the few lawyers who would represent African-Americans, and his daughter would recall in later years slipping into the courthouse to watch him from the gallery after being expelled by the judge.

Her experience representing poor African-Americans instilled her with a sense of justice that infused her throughout her life, said Atlanta attorney Jake Arbes, also one of Kravitch’s first clerks.

“Most of her early life experiences were about growing up in Savannah and representing people nobody else would,” Arbes said. “Her experiences helping her father helped shape her, and her mentality was always about watching out for the underdog and making sure somebody stood up for them.”

In 1973, she was elected president of the Savannah Bar Association, and in 1977 she won a hard-fought race to become a judge on the Eastern Circuit Superior Court.

Two years later, President Jimmy Carter tapped Kravitch for the federal bench. She was appointed to the Fifth Circuit and then moved to the Eleventh.

Kravitch ruled in several notable cases, including one in which a panel she was on granted a condemned man a habeas petition shortly before his execution. He was later released when the state determined that it did not have enough evidence to sustain the conviction.

In 1983, she wrote a majority opinion holding that the government could not discriminate against Haitian and Cuban refugees based on national origin.

Kravitch took senior status in 1996.

Famously press-averse, Kravitch nonetheless cultivated a reputation for her stories, including perhaps the most famous one concerning an incident when she was in New Orleans shortly after being named to the Fifth Circuit.

As she waited outside her hotel in the rain for a cab, two men pushed past her and grabbed the one she was about enter. She grabbed the next one and went to the courthouse.

Seated on the bench in her robe, she looked down to see the same pair seated before her.

“I’m sure they were ready to crawl into a hole,” laughed Arbes. “But I can guarantee that, knowing her, it absolutely would not have affected the outcome of their case.”

Kravitch never married, and her clerks says she treated them as an extended family, remembering the 100-plus lawyers’ names, as well as those of their spouses and children, who she dubbed “grand-clerks,” Floyd said.

Zoller said Kravitch was a frequent guest at his home and on outings with his wife and children.

“We became part of her family,” he said. “We shared holidays together, went to community art festivals—she was very much interested in art and was quite a collector. Some of [the artworks] will be disposed of according to her wishes; she was great benefactor.”

Patrick O’Connor, a partner with Oliver Maner in Savannah and the immediate past president of the State Bar of Georgia, said his experience was limited to arguing a few cases before Kravitch.

“But I’ve heard many stores about her and her father, Aaron Kravitch,” he said. “They were giants in the legal field.

“The bar just celebrated the 100th anniversary of women in the law in Georgia last year,” O’Connor noted. “Judge Kravitch would have certainly been among the leaders.”

Kravitch is survived by two sisters, Bernice Mazo and Sally Scharf, and a nephew. Zoller said there will be a private ceremony for the family in Savannah in the coming weeks, to be followed by a ceremony in Atlanta at an as-yet-undetermined location.

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