Carolina Law Community Remembers Dean and Judge James Dickson Phillips Jr. '48 (1922-2017)

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The following message was shared with UNC School of Law alumni, students, faculty and staff.

J. Dickson Phillips

Dear Carolina Law Family,

With great sorrow, I am writing to let you know that Dean and Judge James Dickson Phillips Jr. ’48 died Sunday, August 27, after a period of declining health. He was 95.

Dean Phillips served as the law school’s eighth dean, succeeding Henry P. Brandis Jr. in 1964 and returning to the faculty in 1974. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Dean Phillips served as an active U.S. circuit judge from 1978 until 1994, when he took senior judge status.

Dean Phillips was born in Laurinburg, North Carolina, in 1922. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a World War I veteran and cotton mill executive. An outstanding student, Dean Phillips was salutatorian of his high school class and matriculated at Davidson College in 1939, where he was captain of the baseball team. After graduating from Davidson with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1943, he enlisted in Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, later entering the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. Dean Phillips was deployed to the European Theater in August 1944, serving his country in the final phases of World War II. Dean Phillips was among the first American paratroopers to land on German soil and was severely wounded in combat. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for bravery.

In the fall of 1945, on the encouragement of his lifelong friend Terry Sanford, Dean Phillips enrolled at Carolina Law, where Dean Robert Wettach was assembling one of the greatest classes in the law school’s history. The Class of 1948 would graduate a future law school dean and federal appellate judge in Phillips, future UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor and beloved law professor William B. Aycock, University of North Carolina President William C. Friday, and two chairs of the UNC Board of Governors, William Dees and John Jordan. Phillips excelled in his studies, serving as associate editor of the North Carolina Law Review and graduating with Order of the Coif honors.

Dean Phillips has been described by my predecessor, Dean Jack Boger, as a "strong, positive presence in the school for his students, a gifted teacher for those fortunate enough to find themselves in his first-year civil procedure class.” Dean Phillips was also a trailblazer. By the fall of his second year as dean, total enrollment at the law school had more than doubled. The faculty also nearly doubled in size during his deanship. Dean Phillips hired Carolina Law’s first African-American visiting faculty member, Harry Groves, and its first full-time African-American faculty member, Charles Daye. There was only one African-American student at the law school when Phillips became dean; by 1973, there were 23, along with two Native American and one Latino students. The 10 women students who enrolled during his first year had swelled to 121 by the time he left.

During his 10 years as dean, Phillips inaugurated the Holderness Moot Court program and the McCall Teaching Award. First year small section classes were instituted for first-year students, and the upper-class curriculum greatly expanded. The first-ever clinical classes were sponsored. By far the largest fundraising effort in the law school’s history up to that time was successfully executed, while the 10-year North Carolina bar passage rate among Carolina Law graduates averaged 95.8 percent.

Dean Phillips’s influence at the law school continues today, both in the memory of the alumni whom he taught and in the presence on our faculty of Paul B. Eaton Distinguished Professor of Law Tom Kelley, who served Judge Phillips as a law clerk. The Phillips family and his former law clerks have endowed the James Dickson Phillips Jr. Distinguished Professorship, which is held by our colleague Robert P. Mosteller. I had the privilege of knowing and admiring Dean Phillips while clerking for his close friend and Fourth Circuit colleague, Sam J. Ervin III.

The Carolina Law family has lost one of the school’s greatest deans and one of the most distinguished jurists in North Carolina history. Dean and Judge Phillips, with his extraordinary intellectual and personal gifts and his deep and abiding modesty, embodied all that is best in Carolina Law.

Aaron S. Kirschenfeld and other law library faculty have assembled a online collection of memorabilia about Dean Phillips’s life and service to the law school, which may be viewed at


Martin H. Brinkley '92
Dean and Professor, UNC School of Law

-August 29, 2017

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