James Dickson Phillips, Jr. died August 27, 2017, at home, surrounded by family. He lived a long and singular life, rich with duty and accomplishment, devotion to family, friends and country, and embrace of the eternal verities.
A man of great intellect and personal strength, he was soldier, lawyer, teacher, judge, churchman, outdoorsman, and music lover, but was defined by none of these — he thought of himself as a fellow pilgrim with all he met, and was beloved in return.
Born in Scotland County, North Carolina, on September 23, 1922, to James Dickson Phillips Sr. and Helen Shepherd Phillips, he was educated in the public schools of Laurinburg under many fine teachers. He was shaped in his childhood by the close-knit community of Scots descendants, the traditional faith, and the hardships of the Depression around him.
In 1939, he entered Davidson College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1943. At Davidson, he was captain of the baseball team and a member of ROTC. He went directly from Davidson into army officer training school and was commissioned a lieutenant in the 17th Airborne Division. He was still training in England when the Battle of the Bulge began in December 1944.
His 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment was in the mass of inadequately clothed and equipped troops rushed in to defend against the German onslaught. A rifle platoon leader, he was one of only about 18 men of the 165-man I Company not a casualty of that battle.
In March, 1945, he parachuted into Germany leading his platoon as part of Operation Varsity, the largest single-day airborne assault in history. Soon badly wounded in a firefight with retreating Germans, he spent the rest of the war in an English hospital. For his war service, he earned a Bronze Starand a Purple Heart, and his unit a distinguished citation.
Returning to Laurinburg immediately after his convalescence, he married his high school sweetheart, Evelyn Pearl Butler, in July, 1945. That fall, he caught a ride to Chapel Hill with childhood friend Terry Sanford, and was admitted on the spot to UNC Law School by Dean Wettach.
In law school, he was a member of the famed study group of the class of 48, Bill Friday, Bill Aycock, Bill Dees and John Jordan. The bonds formed among them endured through their respective careers and lives.
After law school, he served for a year as assistant director of the Institute of Government before returning to Laurinburg and going into law practice with childhood friend Donald McCoy. Soon they moved their practice to Fayetteville, joining Terry Sanford, to form Sanford, Phillips, McCoy.
In those years, he represented people from all walks and tried many cases, gaining experience and perspective that served his common sense understanding of the cases that came before him later as an appellate judge.
In addition to practicing law and beginning a family, he worked to elect to public office the major Democratic leaders of those years, Frank Porter Graham, Kerr Scott, and his own law partner, Terry Sanford. And he did a lot of fishing.
In 1957, his wife Evelyn died in an automobile accident, leaving him and their two young children. Carrying on, he soon accepted an invitation to try teaching at UNC Law school, which led to a permanent offer to join the faculty in the fall of 1960. He married his beloved partner for the remainder of his life, Jean Duff Nunalee, in the summer of 1960, and moved his family to Chapel Hill.
After teaching full time for several years, in 1964 he was made Dean of the law school, and served two terms until 1974. He was a youthful and energetic leader. He enlarged and diversified the faculty and student body, raised funds to build the facility the school still occupies, and generally put the school on the trajectory it has since followed.
As a teacher and mentor to thousands of law students over the years, he combined rigor, warmth and wit and earned their devotion. It is remarkable how many former students recount a pivotal encounter with him that somehow shaped the direction of their lives.
Never ambitious in material terms, he aspired to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, to which he was appointed in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. He served full time on that court until 1994, when he took senior status.
His role as an appellate judge brought together his great personal attributes of precision, clarity and wisdom along with a love of justice and mercy and a generous but realistic understanding of human nature and foibles.
He was esteemed by his colleagues and revered by the law clerks who served him through those years. He brought both a long view of history and the particular experience of life in the North Carolina of the Depression and post-war years to his decisions.
His cases included significant ones involving some of the most contentious issues of the day, minority voting rights, gerrymandering, and sex discrimination, issues that remain with us.
In a series of decisions beginning in 1982 with the Gingles case and continuing into the 1990s with the Shaw decisions, he led three-judge federal panels in finding unlawful state legislative districting that diluted minority voting strength, and upholding as constitutional majority-minority congressional districting.
In Gingles, particularly, he detailed the pernicious history of systematic racial discrimination in voting and election practices, race-baiting in campaigns, and the depressive effects of disadvantages in education, employment and housing on African Americans’ ability effectively to participate in politics.
The U.S Supreme Court affirmed most of the holding in Gingles, agreeing with his analysis and essentially deferring to his understanding of local conditions.
Although part of a long and complex history of election districting decisions, these cases remain important and played a key role in enabling African Americans to achieve better representation in state and congressional offices.
In the sex discrimination area, among other notable decisions, he dissented from the Fourth Circuit panel’s finding that the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) could constitutionally provide a “separate but equal” program for women, a dissenting position that the U. S. Supreme Court ultimately adopted in United States vs. Virginia.
The Supreme Court’s decision was one of the signal steps along the way broadening women’s right to participate in the military. While his legal opinions were written in the precise and technical language of law and legal analysis, his deep humanity and clear-eyed commitment to the principle of equality are plainly evident.
Over the course of a long and notable career, he contributed to many institutional and public efforts, always bringing clarity to the mission and bridging differences through wise counsel and a wry wit.
In the 1960’s he served on the State Wildlife Resources Commission and on the Courts Commission that drafted the constitutional and legislative measures that reorganized the court system in the State.
Later he was named the first chairman of the State Ethics Commission. For a number of years beginning in the late 1960s, he served as a trustee of Davidson College, and was a principal draftsmen of governance documents for that institution. He was a founding trustee of the North Carolina Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
And among his dearest affiliations was his and Jean’s 60-year membership at University Presbyterian Church where they both served on many committees over the years.
He received a raft of awards from the institutions he served. At UNC, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws, the Thomas Jefferson Award, and the Distinguished Alumnus award, among other recognitions. He received the distinguished alumni award from Davidson College and the John J. Parker Award from the N.C. Bar Association.
But most important to him were the enduring values of family and friendship, and living by the Protestant faith woven into his character from childhood. The deep friendships of his youth remained the strongest of his life. Such were those bonds that to his children the circle of close friends blurred the lines of family.
And he was most of all, on a personal level, an endearing model of decency and humanity – he never used his considerable powers of person or position to seek advantage over others, in matters large or small.
In the last years, his powerful mind was slowly drained by time and affliction, but the gentle core of his character never left. He was graciously accepting of the loving and skilled people who came into his life to assist in basic things, unfailingly courteous and grateful in difficult circumstances. He died with the grace and dignity with which he lived.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Jean, whom he described as “all spirit”, daughter Lyn, son Dickson and his wife Lisa Frost-Phillips, daughter Elizabeth and her wife Tania Hannan, daughter Ida and her husband Fletcher Fairey, grandchildren Jonathan, Abigail, and Emmaline Phillips, Stella Hannan, and Fletcher Fairey.
He is also survived by brother Robert Derrick Phillips and his wife Susan Sihler, by his first cousin Whaley Brenner, and by nieces, nephews and cousins.
He was predeceased by his parents, his wife Evelyn, and all of his closest friends from Laurinburg, among them Jim Sutherland, Tom John, Donald McCoy, Jonathan McLean, and Terry Sanford. Their memories live with his.
Published in The News & Observer on Aug. 29, 2017