Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Justice Mildred Lillie: She Was Incomparable
Mildred L. Lillie. She was a presiding justice of the Court of Appeal. That, in itself, is a distinction. But the distinction she had was grander than that, by far.
Mildred L. Lillie, who died Sunday, was the preeminent jurist in the State of California.
Her juridical achievements over her 55 years on the bench outshine those of any other person in the history of this state.
The volume of the opinions she penned during her 44 years on the appellate court was massive. But more important than that, the opinions were superb. They were marked by clarity and logic. They were the product of intellect and unsurpassed knowledge of the law.
She was a kindly and thoughtful person. “All business” when she was on the bench, she was, in social settings, highly adept as a joke-teller.
Justice Lillie experienced gender bias as a young lawyer in what was traditionally regarded as a “man’s” profession. She continued to experience that bias as a judge, starting with her appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1947 when she was commonly described not simply as a “judge,” but a “lady judge.”
When she came to the court in 1958 as an associate justice, appointed by Gov. Goodwin J. Knight, she was lonely; other justices would not speak to her. At the funeral of retired Second District Court of Appeal Clerk Clay Robbins Jr. in 1996, she reflected:
“[I]n those days, a woman justice was not all that popular in the Court of Appeal, not with anyone. In fact, at that time there were only 18 justices in the state and none were women. But Clay befriended me — and did I ever need a friend! And for a long time he was my only friend there.”
It was blatant sexism that had underlain the scurrilous characterization of her by an American Bar Association committee in 1971 as “unqualified” for the United States Supreme Court, deterring President Richard Nixon from appointing her.
Anyone who was familiar with her work recognized that assessment to be untrue. And one who was familiar with her work and elevated her to the post of presiding justice of Div. Seven in 1984 was then-Gov. George Deukmejian. “Do you know how old I am?” she later recounted asking Deukmejian when he telephoned to advise her of his selection. He did. She was 69. She was appointed, and asked to fill out an application later, just to keep the file tidy.
Sexism in the legal profession and the judiciary has diminished. That is so only because of courageous trailblazers such as Mildred L. Lillie who led the excursion onto the terrain once reserved for men. And it is largely so because she, as the most prominent among those once characterized as “lady judges,” excelled.
In the end, she was regarded not as a female jurist but a jurist. And not just any jurist — but the most revered.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company