Wednesday, October 30, 2002
Personal Recollections of Justice Lillie
By ROGER M. GRACE
Despite the disparity in our ages — 30 years — I considered Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Mildred L. Lillie to be a pal. So did my wife, Jo-Ann. (I won’t tell you what the age span there was.)
The passing of Justice Lillie on Sunday gives me cause for reflection on some incidents, unimportant in themselves, but significant to the extent they are revelatory of the character and nature of this remarkable person.
One time, about a year ago, maybe less, Jo-Ann and I went to Park La Brea to pick up Justice Lillie to go to dinner. As always, she was waiting in front of her building, as she would be even if we were early. On this occasion, she was a bit fatigued. And there was good reason for that. The elevator in her building wasn’t working, and this woman, aged 86 or 87 depending on when this occurred — who had recently been hospitalized, and had a problem getting her balance owing to an eye injury —had walked down 11 flights of stairs.
She had made a commitment to go to dinner. And she wasn’t about to let some obstacle deter her.
This typified her perseverance.
She did not accept gender as a limitation, nor age. She would not recognize that there were borders which she could not cross that others could. She did, indeed, have a passport that enabled her to cross borders: her determination, keen mind, and flat refusal to accede to exclusionary practices.
Despite a lofty status in the judiciary, she was anything but stuck up. Some years ago, Jo-Ann and I were having dinner with her and her husband, the late A.V. Falcone, at Chianti’s on Melrose. I recounted, in the course of conversation, how we had gone to dinner recently in Hollywood with an out-of-state judge and some friends. We took the visiting jurist for a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard and we all wound up walking down the street eating ice cream cones. Justice Lillie reflected that she hadn’t had an ice cream cone in 30 years. So, rather than having dessert at the restaurant, we stopped at a Baskin Robbins. They had chairs with wrap around desks — like kids in grade school use. And there was the senior judge of the State of California, sitting at a student’s desk, licking an ice cream cone. And if a lawyer or a fellow jurist had happened by, no, she would not have been embarrassed.
Stuck up? Heck, she took my wife and me to a magic show recently. Why? Well, she had never been to one and neither had we. And it was fun. Yes, this illustrious jurist, whose opinions should be regarded as templates, enjoyed amusement.
We would take her to performances of the California Artists’ Radio Theater — magnificent performances, each of which was audio-taped before an audience at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel Cinegrill for broadcast on National Public Radio stations. Viewing a radio performance wasn’t new to her — she had been in the audience of the Lux Radio Theater — but in the 2000s, it was a fresh, and enjoyable experience.
Jack Benny had lived in the same apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard as Justice Lillie and her husband at one time. She thought highly of him (but not his wife, Mary Livingstone). We listened to a tape of Benny’s performance on “Suspense” once as we took surface streets to Alpine Village in the South Bay.
We took her once to the Stinking Rose, a garlic restaurant, on La Cienega (a new experience which she found later that night she could have done without).
She took us to various eateries, including a restaurant in Brentwood with high prices but mediocre food. She knew the food did not warrant the tariff. However, the owner was a long-time friend, and she was loyal to friends.
Justice Lillie always had some jokes to tell — and, indeed, she told them well. I do remember some of the jokes. There would be no point to recounting them, however. The beauty of the jokes was in her rendition.
Our daughter, Lisa, worshipped her. When she passed the bar exam, Lisa prevailed upon Justice Lillie to swear her in. Justice Lillie agreed. What Lisa anticipated was going into Justice Lillie’s chambers, holding up her hand, and taking an oath. But, the justice said she wanted to do it properly, in the courtroom, and asked that I make a motion for Lisa’s admittance. When we got there, we were stunned to find the full complement of Div. Seven, plus a pro tem, on the bench. Each of the five had words of advice. That ceremony, which my daughter, my wife and I will, of course, never forget, went far beyond what Lisa had asked for or could have foreseen. But, in retrospect, it was typical of Justice Lillie. If she was going to do something, she did it fully, and she did it right.
I asked her to speak one year at the annual meeting of the Half-Norwegian (on the Mother’s Side) American Bar Assn. She did. I did not appreciate, in making the request, the extent of the imposition. Her remarks were not simply dashed off. She undertook considerable research on the Norwegian legal system. Nonetheless, Justice Lillie declined to provide a copy of her remarks for publication. She had utilized available resources in English, but did not know if they were absolutely up to date.
She was a woman with dignity, warmth, and humility — serious on the bench, dedicated to the law, but not too uppity to, well, lick an ice cream cone in public. By no means would “curmudgeonly,” a description of her used in another newspaper yesterday, be apt. My dictionary defines a “ curmudgeon” as “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man.” She did not meet that description.
Her passing constitutes a monumental loss to the judiciary and to the people of the state. She served with dedication and unmatched skill.
Her death causes sorrow on the part of many. Among them are my wife, daughter, and me. We’ve lost a very dear friend.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company
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