The University Record, April 26, 1999

Amalya Lyle Kearse: Judge's robe cloaks an individual of many talents

Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of alumni who have made significant and lasting contributions through their research, scholarship and creative activity. Expanded versions of these articles are available on the Web at'

By Lee Katterman
Office of the Vice President for Research

Since 1979, Amalya Lyle Kearse has served as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York City. During her term on the federal appeals bench, and as a lawyer before that, Judge Kearse has earned a reputation as a gifted legal scholar, first-rate legal writer and shrewd analyst.

But those who knew her while she studied at the Law School 40 years ago remember a young woman whose intellect and talents go well beyond the law. While a student at the U-M, Kearse was a research assistant to several faculty, including John Reed, professor emeritus of law. Reed was impressed by Kearse's creativity and breadth of interest, and describes her as a Renaissance person with many talents.

"Her research for me was of uniformly high quality and met or exceeded all my expectations," Reed says. "She did excellent academic work, yet maintained a very full life including many kinds of activities."

Reed especially recalls her creativity and initiative. On one occasion, he was preparing some songs for entertainment at an Association of American Law Schools meeting that involved parodies based on music from Broadway musicals of the day. "I was stuck for a song to make a particular point. She [Kearse] heard me talking about this and, without prior announcement, simply placed on my desk one morning a set of words to be sung to the music from The Music Man that fit the bill perfectly."

Kearse was a good athlete, too. Reed says he often would invite her to join tennis games with himself and other faculty. "She was always the best player on the court," Reed says.

While at Wellesley College, she became the campus "hoop rolling champion" as a senior in 1959. This Wellesley tradition that continues today has the seniors line up on a street near campus to race as they roll and guide a metal hoop with a stick. Originally, the hoop rolling champion was proclaimed the first of the class to marry--later that was updated to deem the winner would be the first to become a CEO. Today, it's said that the hoop rolling champion will be the first in her class to achieve success, however she defines it.

Kearse was born June 11, 1937, in Vauxhall, N. J., Her father, Robert Freeman Kearse, the Vauxhall postmaster, encouraged his daughter to consider the legal profession. Kearse says her father had always wanted to be a lawyer, but was prevented from doing so by the hardships imposed by the Great Depression. Her mother, Myra Lyle Smith Kearse, was a physician and later became an antipoverty official, so the notion of a career of public service also was modeled for Kearse.

While at the Law School, she was elected to the Order of the Coif, an honor society in law, was editor of the Law Review, and received the Jason L. Honigman Prize. In 1962, she graduated cum laude and near the top of her class.

Kearse then joined the Wall Street law firm of Hughes, Hubbard, and Reed in New York City. She was one of very few African Americans and even fewer African American women to work on Wall Street. In 1969, she became a partner, an unprecedented accomplishment for someone so young.

At the age of 41, Kearse was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. She has been a thoughtful and productive appellate judge and been involved in many major rulings and decisions.

Kearse's outstanding reputation as a lawyer and judge led the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations to consider her for the Supreme Court. She also was nearly nominated for attorney general by President Clinton, who ended up nominating Janet Reno instead.

To add to a long and distinguished legal career, Kearse is a world-class bridge player. She has been a five-time national champion and has written, translated and edited many books on bridge.