Philip Edwin Kaplan (1938–2023)
Philip Edwin Kaplan was a noted lawyer in Little Rock (Pulaski County). As a nationally known attorney focusing on civil and human rights, he helped inmates in the Arkansas prison system fight unjust treatment. He also argued cases against the teaching of creationism in Arkansas’s public schools and in support of a professor who lost his job for being a communist.
Phil Kaplan was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, on January 4, 1938, and grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, with his parents and one brother. He studied government at Harvard University and graduated in 1959. He graduated from the University of Michigan with an LLB degree in 1962. He was licensed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but soon relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, to become field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. He remained there until 1967.
Influenced in his youth by the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis, Kaplan moved to Little Rock in 1968 to practice law with McMath, Leatherman, Woods & Youngdahl. He left after a year to start Walker, Kaplan & Mays as a principal, staying until the end of 1977.
Kaplan began his career in class-action cases in 1970 with Holt v. Sarver, for which he was appointed attorney representing the inmate population of the Arkansas prison system. Judge J. Smith Henley ultimately ruled that certain aspects of the existing prison system in Arkansas were unconstitutional. The case came full circle in 1978, when Kaplan represented the inmates of the Arkansas prison system and argued his case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hutto v. Finney class-action lawsuit. The Court upheld the findings of the district court—a victory for Kaplan and the inmates he represented.
Kaplan left his law firm to become a principal at Kaplan, Brewer, Maxey & Haralson in 1978. During his tenure there, he was involved in several employment discrimination cases, such as Cooper v. Henslee (1974–1980). Grant Cooper III, assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), was not rehired after he admitted to being a communist, although not a formal member of the party. After this information was published in the Arkansas Gazette, the members of the state legislature demanded his dismissal from the school, and when his reappointment was considered, it was denied on the basis of poor classroom performance. Kaplan served as the attorney for Cooper when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came to the defense of Cooper. The ACLU and Cooper prevailed in the suit.
Kaplan represented the ACLU again in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. This federal court case challenged the state’s Act 590 of 1981, which required equal treatment for creationism any time evolution was taught in the classroom. Kaplan argued that creationism was in fact a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory. The case was decided in early 1982 in the ACLU’s favor.
He was also lead counsel for the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and its board of trustees in Richardson v. Sugg in 2006. UA head basketball coach Nolan Richardson had been terminated after the university decided that a comment he had made during a game was inappropriate. The decision was upheld in favor of UA, another victory for Kaplan and his firm.
In 2007, Kaplan moved on to the law firm of Williams & Anderson PLC. Kaplan was a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates, the American College of Trial Lawyers, and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers and was a longtime adjunct faculty member at the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law. He was also a fellow of the American Bar Association Foundation. Later in his career, Kaplan was “Of Counsel” to the law firm of Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus, P.C.
Kaplan was known locally as one of the Two Jewish Guys on KUAR public radio’s “Jewish Guys Chanukah Special.” Kaplan and his fellow performer Leslie Singer also performed in an annual symphony holiday show at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock.
Kaplan died on June 23, 2023, after suffering a stroke. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery.
For additional information:
Ampezzan, Bobby. “Philip Edwin Kaplan.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 21, 2014, pp. 1D, 8D.
Crosley, Clyde. Unfolding Misconceptions: The Arkansas State Penitentiary, 1836–1986. Arlington, TX: Liberal Arts Press, 1986.
Feeley, Malcolm M., and Edward L. Rubin. Judicial Policy Making and the Modern States: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Gettinger, Aaron. “Arkansas Civil Rights Attorney Philip Kaplan Dies at 85.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 27, 2023, pp. 1B, 2B. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/jun/27/phil-kaplan-85-civil-rights-attorney-and/ (accessed June 27, 2023).
Obituary of Philip Kaplan. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 25, 2023, p. 1K. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/obituaries/2023/jun/25/philip-kaplan-2023-06-25/ (accessed June 25, 2023).
Philip E. Kaplan Papers, 1967–1983, Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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