Deborah Rhode, Who Transformed the Field of Legal Ethics, Dies at 68

Deborah Rhode, Who Transformed the Field of Legal Ethics, Dies at 68


She is survived by her husband and her sister, Christine Rhode.

Ms. Rhode attended New Trier East High School, where she was a champion debater, often facing off against another future legal star, Merrick Garland, the federal judge nominated to be attorney general in the Biden administration, who attended Niles West High School nearby.

Arriving at Yale in 1970 as part of what was only the school’s second coed class, Ms. Rhode found herself with almost no female professors or organizations dedicated to women’s issues. Female undergraduates, she later wrote, were intended to be seen and not heard.

But Ms. Rhode made sure she was heard. She was the first woman elected president of the Yale Debate Association, following in the footsteps of John Kerry and William F. Buckley Jr. and defeating her future husband, Mr. Cavanagh, by a resounding 23 to 3 vote.

“I followed her with keen interest after that,” Mr. Cavanagh said in an interview.

Despite her academic success, Ms. Rhode continued to confront obstacles based on her gender. Although Yale was coed, the Yale Club in New York City was not. When she insisted on entering anyway, she was escorted out. She also found it difficult to land clerkships; many judges more or less refused to hire women.

Two who didn’t were Judge Murray I. Gurfein, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, for whom she worked after graduating, and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court, where Ms. Rhode took an office down the hall from her old debating adversary, Mr. Garland, a clerk for Justice William Brennan.

Justice Marshall encouraged her interest in becoming a law professor, though he teased her about teaching gender discrimination. “In most of the country,” he joked, “it seems to come naturally.”



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