Remembering Phylis Skloot Bamberger ’63

Phylis Skloot Bamberger
Phylis Skloot Bamberger ’63

Phylis Skloot Bamberger ’63, a former New York State Supreme Court Justice, passed away on October 28 at the age of 79. One of only five women in her NYU Law class, Bamberger fought for prisoners’ rights, led the Legal Aid Society’s federal defender unit for the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit at a time when few women headed federal defenders’ offices, and served as a judge in the Bronx for 18 years.

In 1970, when prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility faced abusive retaliation by guards in the wake of a prison uprising, Bamberger and another Legal Aid lawyer persuaded a three-judge Second Circuit panel to order an immediate halt to what the court called “barbarous conduct…beatings, physical abuse, torture, running of gantlets, and similar cruelty.” Bamberger went on to chair a New York State Bar committee that in 1974 produced a Draft Proposal for the Provision of Legal Services to Indigent Inmates in New York State Correctional Facilities. The committee’s finding shone a light on the inadequacy of legal representation for the incarcerated and led to the founding of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

“Judge Bamberger truly represented the best of NYU Law,” says Professor Erin Murphy. “She swam against the tide to rise in a male-dominated profession while nurturing a loving family and tirelessly serving the public interest.… I loved hearing stories of her early days as one of few women in the law school and profession, and of her juggling her newborn’s care while running off to take statements from inmates at Attica. Our community was enriched by her great mind and her great humanity, and she will be greatly missed.”

Judge Phylis Skloot Bamberger '63 speaking in court
Phylis Skloot Bamberger '63 speaking in court

Over the course of her career, Bamberger argued four cases in the US Supreme Court and nearly 200 in the Second Circuit. She was appointed to the New York state bench by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1988. There, the cases she heard included the sentencing of former New York City councilman Rafael Castaneira-Colon for larceny in 1994 and a high-profile 1995 extortion trial of a Bronx police officer. Chairing the New York State Bar’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions, she helped identify causes of wrongful convictions in New York’s justice system, findings that paved the way for recent legislation reforming police practices.

Professor Melissa Murray recalls that she first met Bamberger through Bamberger’s son Kenneth, who was a fellow faculty member at Berkeley Law. “Before I had an inkling of her tremendously successful career as an advocate and judge, I knew her as a doting and proud parent and grandparent,” Murray says. “It was only later, as we chatted at birthday parties and the like, that I understood that she was a pillar of the bar and a fierce (and successful) advocate for social justice. She never came out and said this—it was not her way. But as she reminisced about her career as a Legal Aid lawyer and judge, it became apparent how much she had contributed to her community and the law itself.”

Posted November 21, 2018