Justice Mildred L. Lillie, who was believed to be California’s longest-serving appellate justice and who was once considered for appointment as the first female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, has died. She was 87.
Lillie, whose name appears on the Nov. 5 ballot as presiding justice of a section of the Los Angeles-based 2nd District Court of Appeal, died early Sunday in St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles. Justice Earl Johnson Jr., her colleague on the court’s Division 7, said that no specific cause of death had been given but that Lillie had been hospitalized for about six weeks for problems with balance and lightheadedness.
Any vacancy on the state appellate court is filled by gubernatorial appointment, and Lillie’s death will not affect the election. State Supreme Court and appellate court justices are subject only to periodic votes of “yes” or “no” as to whether they should be retained in office. They face no opponents.
“I am hopeful that she will be retained,” Johnson said Monday. “Her performance certainly deserves it, and that would be a good tribute to her memory.”
The Times had endorsed Lillie, who also was believed to be Los Angeles County’s longest-serving judge, with a total of 55 years on the Municipal, Superior and appellate courts.
Johnson said that, as a justice, Lillie “was both wise and very hard-working, committed to doing the best possible job in every case. She was very balanced, very middle of the road.”
He said Lillie had conducted their panel’s hearings in August and carried a full workload until she was hospitalized.
In addition to her courtroom work, Lillie for many years served as the administrative presiding judge of the entire 2nd District, which includes seven four-judge panels.
Gov. Gray Davis issued a statement Monday calling Lillie “a true California treasure -- a pioneer for women in the legal field and an institution in our courts.”
“She served longer than any judge on any California court today and she was the longest-serving appellate justice in the history of our state,” Davis said, adding that Lillie had served through the terms of eight governors and had written more than 3,000 opinions.
A Democrat, Lillie was considered so “eminently fair,” as one Republican put it, that she received all her appointments to the bench from Republicans. She was named to the Los Angeles County Municipal Court in 1947 and elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court two years later by Gov. Earl Warren.
In 1958, Gov. Goodwin Knight appointed her to the Court of Appeal, and in 1971 President Nixon proposed her as the first female justice in history for the U.S. Supreme Court.
That appointment got derailed, however, after a 12-member judiciary committee of the American Bar Assn. on Oct. 20, 1971, ruled that Lillie was “not qualified” to sit on the country’s highest court. The 12 male lawyers, whose opinion was not binding on Nixon but who certainly influenced him, said Lillie, who had by then presided over various courts for 24 years, lacked experience. A day later, Nixon announced his appointment of William Rehnquist.
Lillie and her colleagues attributed the negative ABA rating to her being a woman and to the belief of male lawyers in those years that women were too emotional to sit on the Supreme Court. That conclusion is borne out by the former Nixon White House counsel, John Dean, in his recently published book, “The Rehnquist Choice: The Untold Story of the Nixon Appointment That Redefined the Supreme Court.” (It would be another decade before Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice in 1981.)
Born Mildred Loree Kluckhohn in Ida Grove, Iowa, she moved to Central California with her parents when she was 3 and grew up on a farm, picking, sorting and packing fruit. Defying her parents to pursue a law career -- her mother wanted her to be a commercial artist, her father favored “something practical” -- she worked her way through UC Berkeley and its law school.
Her first job as a lawyer was as a deputy city attorney in Alameda, Calif. She practiced privately in Fresno from 1938 to 1942 and then moved south to become an assistant U.S. attorney in the Los Angeles district. In 1947, she married attorney Cameron L. Lillie, who died in 1959, and afterward adopted his surname as her permanent professional name. Her second husband was A.V. Falcone, to whom she was married from 1966 until his death in 1996.
Throughout her career, Lillie achieved countless firsts, not only as the first woman to occupy certain positions, but often as the youngest as well.
When Warren named her to the Municipal Court, she was 32. Two years later, she became the youngest person appointed to the Superior Court in California.
On that court, she became the first woman to preside over its domestic relations department and in 1953 the first woman and the youngest judge to preside over the court’s mammoth Criminal Division. Because of her stature when few women were lawyers, she was profiled in such national magazines as Colliers and Mademoiselle.
When Knight named Lillie to the Court of Appeal, she was not the first woman to reach that level. Gov. Cuthbert Olson had appointed Annette Abbott Adams to the court’s Sacramento district in 1942.
But Lillie is believed to have been the longest-serving justice of either sex on the statewide Court of Appeal in history -- 44 years. She served on the 2nd District’s Division 1 from 1958 until 1984 when she was named presiding judge of the then two-year-old Division 7.
Although Lillie’s courtroom presence could be stern, and she quickly lectured any lawyer who was disrespectful or unprepared for court, she was considered warm and witty off duty.
She always listed her hobbies as writing and cooking, and was equally praised for her impeccably drafted legal opinions and her birthday cakes and dessert recipes.
Lillie is survived by two stepchildren, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dewey Falcone and Dolores Metzger; four step-grandchildren; and one step-great-grandchild.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will preside at her funeral at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 505 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills. Burial will be at Holy Cross Cemetery, 5835 Slauson Ave.
Memorial donations can be made to Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, 1531 W. James M. Wood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015.