Phyllis Kravitch and Clarence Thomas may have been on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but there were common threads that led them to become close friends, not to mention high-ranking members of the federal judiciary.
Kravitch, the trailblazing jurist, died in June at the age of 96 after serving three decades on the federal appeals court. Like Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court justice, Kravitch was raised in Savannah. And her father, prominent attorney Aaron Kravitch, once represented Thomas’ grandfather.
On Monday, in the ornate and storied ceremonial courtroom of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Thomas shared warm, personal thoughts about his friend during a memorial service billed as a celebration of Kravitch’s life.
It was attended by dozens of Kravitch’s former law clerks, members of the local judiciary, her family and friends.
As for Kravitch’s father, Thomas said of his grandfather, “He thought he was the best lawyer in Savannah.”
Aaron Kravitch did not have segregated waiting rooms, one for “coloreds” and another for “whites,” Thomas said. And while Kravitch was a fine lawyer, “more than what he did in the courtroom was how he conducted himself as a human being.”
Phyllis Kravitch began practicing with her father in Savannah after graduating with high marks at the University of Pennsylvania law school and being turned down for judicial clerkships and law firm jobs because she was a woman.
“Judge Kravitch didn’t let that stop her,” Thomas said, noting she began practicing law more than a decade before women could serve on juries in Georgia.
Kravitch later became the first woman elected as a Superior Court judge in Georgia and the first woman to serve on what’s now known as the 11th Circuit court.
Thomas said when he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Kravitch was one of the first people to write him a letter of congratulations and offering whatever help she could give him. “I called her back immediately,” he said.
Thomas would drop by and visit Kravitch when he returned to Savannah to visit his family.
“She lived what she believed — do well in order to do good,” the justice said.
He recalled Kravitch taking a different view on what others often said — that she’d hired the first black secretary in Savannah.
“I didn’t hire the first black secretary,” Kravitch would say, Thomas recalled. “I hired the best secretary to apply and she happened to be black.”
Kravitch’s passing “is a profound loss to our country,” Thomas told a packed courtroom. “I will dearly miss our friendship. … Her career was nothing more than remarkable.”
During the hour-long ceremony, Chief Judge Ed Carnes read aloud a letter from former President Jimmy Carter, who put Carnes on the federal appeals court bench in 1979. Carter applauded the diminutive Kravitch’s “commitment to fairness and equality.”
Said Carnes, “We all respected, loved and admired Judge Kravitch.”
Former 11th Circuit court executive Norman Zoller noted that Kravitch authored more than 4,100 opinions during her time on the bench.
“For many reasons, Judge Kravitch was a national treasure,” Zoller said. “She was a legend and a groundbreaker in a world dominated by men.”