Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie Dies; Served 55 Years on Bench
Legal Community Mourns Her Passing
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Services are set for tomorrow for Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie, the longest-serving judicial officer in California history and one of the state’s first women jurists
Lillie, presiding justice of this district’s Div. Seven, died early Sunday after a brief illness. She was 87.
Revered by her bench colleagues for her keen mind and personal warmth and wit, respected by attorneys for her no-nonsense approach to hearing legal arguments and crafting opinions, Lillie made a lasting mark on the state’s justice system over a 55-year career.
She came close to becoming the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, a decade before Sandra Day O’Connor claimed the distinction. A Democrat, Lillie was considered for the post by Republican President Richard M. Nixon but was dropped after getting poor marks from an American Bar Association panel.
The low rating was a shock to many who knew Lillie and her abilities, and she was staunchly backed by state Supreme Court justices and the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Some said at the time that the ABA resisted Lillie because she was too conservative.
Many observers insist that the true reason for the ABA rejection, nearly a quarter-century after she was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, was that the nation still was not ready for a woman on the high court.
Lillie leaves behind many thousands of published opinions and—as testimony to her broad range of interests and accomplishments—several published baking recipes.
Friends, judges, elected officials and others offered praise and appreciation yesterday. Former Gov. George Deukmejian said it was an honor for him to appoint Lillie to the presiding justice post in 1984, after she had served 26 years on the court.
“During her long, extraordinary career as a member of the judiciary, she decided cases quietly and clearly, and kept interested and involved in her profession,” Deukmejian said. “She was always maintained a graceful, wholesome discipline that allowed her to be true to the parties who appeared before her, the public she served, and her family and friends.”
Gov. Gray Davis called Lillie a “true California treasure.”
“Throughout her life, Justice Lillie embodied the spirit of vitality and strength,” Davis said. “She was dedicated to upholding the dignity of the courtroom and the rule of law.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dewey Falcone, whose late father, attorney A.V. Falcone, was married to Lillie for 36 years, called her a “great lady” who rose from life as an Iowa farm-girl and domestic cook to the door of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“What sticks out in my mind is that she never gave up,” Falcone said. “Even when as the first woman to be considered for the Supreme Court she got hammered pretty hard. Those things didn’t bother her. She kept right on going.”
Lillie was born Mildred Kluckhohn in Ida Grove, Iowa on Jan. 25, 1915. She moved with her family to a San Joaquin Valley fruit ranch and did the family’s cooking in the 1920s and into the early years of Great Depression. When she was older she took part-time jobs in cannery, then returned to cooking to earn tuition at UC Berkeley.
Avid Oil Painter
She told the MetNews in 1983 that she wanted to be an artist, but she decided after taking a few art classes that she could not make a living at it. But she remained an avid oil painter, and friends describe first-rate oils that decorate her apartment.
With art no longer a professional goal, Lillie set her sights on law and was accepted to Boalt Hall. She continued to cook to earn tuition money, but also took a job as a floor detective for a Sears department store.
She said she encountered little resistance as a young woman in law school, but that soon changed when she began looking for a job. She often repeated the story of how she approached Alameda District Attorney Earl Warren, but was rejected for a job because Warren had hired a woman once before and it didn’t work out.
She was to get better support from Warren in the future.
Lillie’s first job as a lawyer was with the Alameda City Attorney’s Office, then in private practice in the office of a Fresno lawyer. She became a federal prosecutor in 1942, moving to Los Angeles to become an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California.
She returned briefly to private practice until Warren, now governor, appointed her to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1947. Two years later Warren elevated her to the Superior Court, and not long after that, Lillie recalled, she reminded the governor of how he had first rejected her for a job.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t tell him before I was appointed,” she joked in a 1983 MetNews interview.
After Warren was named to the U.S. Supreme Court, Gov. Goodwin Knight nominated Lillie to the Court of Appeal.
She served much of her appellate bench career on Div. One, but became presiding justice of Div. Seven in 1984, soon after it was created.
Div. Seven has long been known for justices of starkly different political bent—-and for the close collegiality of its jurists.
One of those colleagues, Justice Fred Woods, noted that Lillie was already on the bench when he was taking the bar exam.
“I was just in awe of her,” Woods said. “She was a tough lady. No pushover by a longshot. She would come into our conferences with a position she wanted to advocate, and she would stick to her guns if she thought she was right.”
But she also listened, Woods said, and was not afraid to change her mind.
Justice Earl Johnson Jr. cited Lillie’s “imposing presence” on the bench.
“I think many lawyers may have considered her intimidating,” Johnson said. “But she was a very warm, very human, very fun-loving human being.”
Any tension that would come up in conference usually was extinguished by Lillie’s jokes, Johnson said. She was known for them.
“She loves to collect jokes,” Johnson said. “Every conference began, and usually ended, with her telling a joke.”
Lillie’s reputation as a joke-teller was attested to by friends. Fiorenza Lucas, wife of former Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, said Lillie told her and her husband a new joke every time she saw them, and sometimes would call up just to tell a joke or a story.
“She told us one just before she went into surgery” several days ago, Lucas said.
Lillie was also known for her baking. Johnson said she often showed up at court with a cake she has made, and Justice Robert Mallano recalled eating at a restaurant in Aspen, Colo., and seeing “Mildred Lillie’s Mud Pie” on the menu.
Her recipe for the pie—-actually a kind of chocolate mousse cake—was published in a Los Angeles Times cookbook and was frequently reprinted in the newspaper at the request of readers.
Lillie was also well known in social circles. She supported museums and was especially fond of the Music Center. She was close friends with Rosemary Willson and her late husband, famed “Music Man” composer Meredith Willson.
“She was really a wonderful lady,” Rosemary Willson said. “She would do anything for you that she could.”
Lucas said Lillie was named the woman of the year by the Muses, a support group for the Museum of Science and Industry.
Lucas also noted that she and Malcolm Lucas met at a party at Lillie’s home.
“We considered her the godmother of our marriage,” Lucas said.
Many justices and friends recounted Lillie’s special role in their lives—-at baptisms for grandchildren, at oath ceremonies, at weddings.
She conducted the marriage ceremony for the 1963 wedding of Joan Dempsey Klein, who later joined her on the Court of Appeal.
Klein described her friend as a “stalwart among us” and noted that Lillie was, and continues to be, a role model for women who are following in her foot steps.
As Lillie’s stature on the court grew, she was accorded more respect and responsibility. She became administrative presiding justice in 1988, and served in that role through 1996 when, Falcone said, the administrative work grew too burdensome.
Her successor in that role, Presiding Justice Charles. S. Vogel, noted that “probably everyone on this court has made an appearance before her” as a practitioner at some point during her bench career.
In addition to Lillie’s penchant for joke-telling, Vogel recalls that she “had an amazing memory when it came to judges and governors.” A number of her colleagues called her a historical resource, but most said she refused to dwell in the past.
Among her most notable opinions, Johnson said, was the 1993 case of Hecht v. Superior Court in which the court ruled that a man could will his frozen sperm to his girlfriend. The opinion was upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Johnson also cited Lillie’s 1997 opinion in Prilliman v. United Air Lines, in which the court ruled that the airline had discriminated against a pilot who had AIDS.
“But there were so many opinions,” Johnson said. “It is impossible to pick out just a few.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George recalled being a “brand new deputy district attorney” when he first appeared before Lillie. Years later, after the two had been colleagues on the Court of Appeal, George recalled being pleased that it was Lillie’s turn to sit pro tem on the Supreme Court during a rededication of a historic courthouse in Santa Ana.
“She was very much no-nonsense, get straight to the point” in oral argument, George said. “She always treated counsel quite politely, but got straight to the issue. She wasn’t patient with lawyers who wouldn’t get to the point.”
“She was a person of great insight, vast experience, and keen wit, who was a true pioneer for women in her profession.”
Lillie filed this past summer for election to a new 12-year term. Her name is on next Tuesday’s retention ballot in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties, and the votes will be counted, a spokesman for Secretary of State Bill Jones said.
“There is no mechanism or law that allows us either to remove her name, or stop counting, so the counties will count the votes as received and we will provide a total,” Shad Balch explained.
Her death, however, creates a vacancy that the governor can fill regardless of the outcome of the vote, Balch said.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, who is to celebrate at Lillie’s funeral mass, called Lillie a “wonderful lady, passionate for the rights of the voiceless, the powerless.”
Mahony said Lillie had asked him to conduct her funeral mass. He related that she had entered the hospital, had exploratory surgery, and that doctors discovered an inoperable cancer.
She was admitted to St. Vincent’s Medical Center last Thursday.
A hospital spokeswoman said she died at 1:35 a.m. Sunday.
Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. tomorrow at Church of the Good Shepherd, 505 North Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills. Interment is at 5835 Slauson Ave., Culver City.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company