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Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Remembers Judge J. Dickson Phillips, Jr.

August 31, 2017

 Judge J. Dickson Phillips, Jr.The Honorable J. Dickson Phillips, Jr. died on August 27, 2017, at his home at the age of 94.

Judge Phillips was born in Scotland County, North Carolina, on September 23, 1922. He attended public schools in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and his experiences in this close-knit community during the Depression and following World War II, and the bonds developed there, would remain influential for the remainder of his life.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1943 from Davidson College, Judge Phillips was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army’s 17th Airborne Division.  His 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment was sent in to defend against the German onslaught at the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, where he was one of a very few men in his company to survive the battle. He was later wounded in Operation Varsity in 1945, after leading his platoon as part of the largest single-day airborne assault in history. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart, and his unit received a citation for the Rhine airborne crossing.

When Judge Phillips returned to the United States, he entered law school at the University of North Carolina, where members of his study group included Bill Friday, who later became president of the University of North Carolina system; Bill Aycock, a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; John Jordan, Jr., a three-term state senator; and, on occasion, Terry Sanford, who went on to serve as Governor of North Carolina and as a United States Senator.

Following law school, Judge Phillips became the assistant director of the university's Institute of Government for one year. He then returned home to open a law practice in Laurinburg, North Carolina, with his childhood friend, Donald McCoy. Practicing law in a small town meant helping fellow citizens work through a wide range of legal issues, which they did from 1949-1955. This continued when the practice moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to join with Terry Sanford from 1955-1958.

In 1960, after serving as a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Judge Phillips was invited to join the law school faculty. Four years later, he was selected as the dean and served in that capacity until 1974. His impact on the law school and influence on the students under his tutelage was immense. He was revered by students and considered a friend and wise counselor to those who worked with him. He was the recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest award given to faculty, among other honors. In 2008, friends and colleagues endowed a distinguished professorship in his honor.

Judge Phillips was nominated by President Jimmy Carter on July 20, 1978, to a seat on the Fourth Circuit formerly held by J. Braxton Craven, Jr., and was confirmed by the Senate on August 11, 1978.  There were seven active judges and three senior judges when he joined the court.  He assumed senior status in 1994 and continued to sit with the court through 1999.

During his 21 years on the bench, Judge Phillips authored significant opinions on a broad range of issues to come before the court, including redistricting and the Voting Rights Act, civil rights, sex discrimination, the First Amendment, and criminal and civil procedure. He has been described as a staunch defender of the Bill of Rights. In addition to his many influential opinions, he served the court through administrative duties that included improving internal court procedures and planning programs for the judicial conference. At the national level, he served on several committees of the Judicial Conference of the United States, making significant contributions to the committee on the Rules of Civil Procedure.

Among his numerous qualities mentioned by colleagues over the years are humility, intellect, courage, clarity, gentility, and wit. He is also remembered for his deep insights into human nature and a gift for listening, always striving to find common ground among differing views in a patient and respectful manner.

"He was a giant in so many ways," said Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. "He was a heroic man of courage, both on the military battlefield and in a courtroom. He had a great feel for humanity, and a strong combination of intellect, integrity and humility. He exemplified what is good about being a judge."

In remembering his colleague, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III stated, "Judge Phillips was the quintessential judge - imbued with knowledge and wisdom, devoted to law and respectful of litigants, generous with colleagues and appreciative of staff. This gentle man fought bravely in his country's defense and valiantly for the principles in which he believed. He leaves us a lifetime of good works and an example for all Americans of good will to follow."

Judge Wilkinson concluded, "On or off the bench, we shall miss him always."

The obituary for Judge Phillips published in the News & Observer is available at this link-