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Phyllis A. Kravitch L’44, first woman to serve on the Fifth Circuit, dies at 96

June 19, 2017

The Honorable Phyllis A. Kravitch L’44, a Senior Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, a champion for women in the legal profession, and an early litigator of civil rights in the Deep South, has died at age 96.

Kravitch was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1979. She was the first woman to serve on the Fifth Circuit and the third woman ever to be appointed to a Circuit court. In 1981, she became a judge on the newly formed Eleventh Circuit, created from districts which had been split off from the Fifth Circuit. She took Senior Judge status in 1996.

“Judge Kravitch was truly a pioneer,” said Ted Ruger, Dean of the Law School and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “As a lawyer, she advocated for the rights of those ignored by the political structure of the time, and she was a path-breaking and highly regarded figure on the federal bench.”

Born in 1920, Kravitch grew up in Savannah, Georgia. She received her BA from Goucher College in 1941 and her LLB from Penn Law in 1944, where she was one of two women in her class.

In a 2005 feature in the Penn Law Journal spotlighting five female Penn Law graduates who went on to become judges and justices, she looked back with fondness on her time at the Law School, which she called “a leader in all schools in granting equality to men and women.”

But upon graduation, she was not prepared for the discrimination she faced in the legal profession. “Not a single law firm to which I applied would even give me an interview and I was turned down for two federal clerkships because of my sex,” she recalled in the article.

Kravitch was encouraged to apply for federal clerkships by Penn Law Dean Edwin R. Keedy. “The judge on the District level was a fine gentleman, who explained very graciously that he had nothing against women per se and that, if he could not find a man to fill the job, then he would call me,” she noted in a 1980 Penn Law Journal story. “Needless to say, he found a man. And that was the name of the game at that time.”

She returned to Savannah and joined her father’s law firm, where they mostly represented indigent clients accused of criminal offenses.

“I was highly criticized for engaging in trial work — at the time an unheard of and ‘most unladylike’ activity,” she said in the 1980 PLJ profile. “Undaunted, I went to court daily and litigated the various types of civil and criminal cases encountered by a trial lawyer in general practice.”

She was inspired by her father, Aaron Kravitch, a 1917 Penn Law graduate, who had long been litigating civil rights matters in the South, even when doing so was unpopular. After she joined the firm, their cases included, among others, a suit to allow Georgia teachers to exercise the right to form a union and a suit to allow black citizens to vote in the then all white Democratic primary. In Toomer v. Witsell, their arguments invalided South Carolina laws that discriminated against Georgia shrimpers.

She practiced until 1976, when she was elected as the first woman superior court judge in Georgia, where she served from 1977–1980 before being named to the Fifth Circuit.

In the course of Kravitch’s distinguished career, she received many awards, including several from Penn Law. In 1992, in recognition of her many years pursuing constitutional justice as a lawyer and her distinguished career on the federal bench, she received Penn Law’s James Wilson Award, which honors a Law School graduate for a lifetime of service to the profession.

In 2016, she received the Summit Award at the Inaugural Penn Law Women’s Summit, which honors outstanding women leaders whose careers and advocacy at the highest levels inspire and enable the continuing advancement of women.