Thursday, July 15, 2004

Goodbye to Justice Mildred Lillie

I missed the opening of the Los Angeles County Law Library on December 14, 1953. They wouldn’t let me out of Le Conte Jr. High School in Hollywood California, where I was a victim, I mean student. Had the school removed my ankle restraints I could have been there. I would have waited for the bus in front of the bowling alley on Sunset and Bronson. It would be a straight shot down Sunset Blvd. to “downtown.” I would have had to take the bus because I didn’t have a driver’s license, let alone a learner’s permit. It is fun to imagine what could have been, a leisurely stroll in the stacks, maybe stopping now and then to leaf through Cal.App.2d. Cal.App.3d was not even a gleam in the Reporter of Decision’s eye. It would be another five years before the Cal.App.2nd Reports would be graced by a Mildred L. Lillie opinion. But at age 14, what did I know from a law library? Had I been able to drive I might have gone more often to the public library in my neighborhood, the one on Ivar Street, where I fit in with its habitués, a raggedy assortment of kooks and eccentrics.
December 14, 1953, 50 years ago, and I still remember the day well. My thoughts were on my upcoming birthday. Would I survive to celebrate it? Le Conte Jr. High School, you see, was “a rough school.” A newspaper reporter (that’s what they were called in those days), was only slightly exaggerating when she wrote that we had tear gas drills once a week. Just one year before Brown v. Board of Education, students, (a euphemism) were bussed in from a place quaintly named Roger Young Village. Its sister city was reputed to be Devil’s Island. Despite their Neanderthal attributes, the Roger Young kids showed remarkable foresight by introducing methods and techniques used today by our armed forces in warfare-- slash and burn, being but one example. A visit to the law library would have given me a respite from practicing the canny skills I employed each day to stay alive.
How could I know at the time that Le Conte Jr. High School was preparing me for a legal career that would take me to the main building of the county law library fifty years later to celebrate its anniversary and its renaming for my dear friend and colleague Mildred L. Lillie. Like today’s lawyer aspiring to success, I marketed my skills as early as the 7th grade.
My seminars for the Roger Young kids on the value of good hygiene gave me cachet. I persuaded them that they could wear underwear without being sissies because it is hidden beneath their clothes. I soon became a kind of consigliore, advising on the intricacies of how to pass tests, at first instilling the basic tenet for a good start, spelling one’s name correctly, and then introducing more radical concepts like studying.
And then it is November 6, 2003, a mere blink of the eye in Einstein’s or Arthur Clarke’s universe, and I am standing before the Swedish Blue Pearl Granite lower walls and the upper walls that look like white stone that make up the exterior monolith of the law library. If it were only 2001. I reach out towards it. The opening drums of Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra” are pounding in my ears. I sense the irony and the drama of the moment. Let me explain.
Imagine you are a contestant on the popular television game show, Jeopardy (a condition in which I often find myself for writing this column). What, there are a few of you who have never watched Jeopardy? As I recall, the contestant picks a category. The game show host supplies the answer, and the contestant must come up with the question. Got it? Let’s just try an easy one for practice. The category is “Courts.” The answer is, “I can’t count that high.” And the obvious question is “What is the number of reversals from the 9th Circuit?”
Back to the library. I am transfixed. I can hear the opening two chords of Zarathustra which follow the drums, and I become a contestant on Jeopardy. The category is “Paradox.” The voice of the moderator gives me the answer, "50 years old and just born.” The question comes to me during the second entry of the timpani drums. “What is the Los Angeles County Law Library building on this evening?”
The 50th anniversary of this important repository of legal knowledge that very evening was re-born to bear the name of one of our most respected and revered jurists, Mildred L. Lillie. For an extra point, I had to guess what the middle initial L stands for. I take a wild stab -- "Library"?
I snap out of my hypnotic fascination and go inside. Ceremonies to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the library and its renaming, The Mildred L. Lillie Law Library, are about to begin. I still have a few minutes to walk through the stacks and look at the books that carry the case names of so many of the kids bussed in from Roger Young Village 50 years ago.
The program begins with the ebullient president of the Board of Trustees of the Library, Susan Steinhauser. In a stirring opening she explains how the Board, and the library’s director, Richard Iamele, see the library as a bridge to justice for everyone by providing open access to legal information. What better name than Mildred L. Lillie to adorn the main building of the L.A. County Law Library. With grace and determination she pried open the doors of access that had been closed to her and other women in the legal profession. And now the building dedicated to open access bears her name. This was a truly historic moment, quite apart from there being close to 100 judges in the law library, at the same time, another first.
A video presentation chronicled her life and career. The word that kept coming up was "first." Those solid common sense Lillie opinions came from the first woman justice appointed to the 2nd district Court of Appeal in 1958. During her 55 years as a judicial officer she made a stunning contribution to our justice system. Chief Justice George hailed her as a great jurist and scholar.
For someone who did not know Justice Lillie personally it is not easy to capture the essence of this remarkable individual. If you were to think of an amalgamation of important individuals in history such as Catherine the Great, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria (who incidentally was no prude), Betty Crocker, Dolly Madison, Susan B. Anthony, and Golda Meir, you are getting close.
Adjectives that some have used to describe her include, formidable, resolute, elegant, stately, brilliant, human, intimidating, funny, titanic, unassuming, kind, and compassionate. She was Presiding Justice of Division 7 of the 2nd district Court of Appeal, and had been the district's administrative presiding justice for several years. Despite the importance of these positions, she modestly explained that her role was like that of the head of a cemetery. "You have a lot of people under you, but no one listens."
Those subject to a grilling of legal issues at oral argument are aware of her matchless wit and sense of humor, but may not know of her countless jokes. She played one on me a few years ago. She and I were seated in the courtroom of the Supreme Court waiting to speak in support of a nominee for the Court of Appeal at his confirmation hearing. The members of the Commission on Judicial Appointments, the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, and the Senior Presiding Justice of the Second District entered the chambers and the proceedings were called to order.
Justice Lillie and I were seated in the front row. She was the first speaker called. To reach the podium she had to pass by me. My legs were crossed, but even though I was still collecting last minute thoughts about what I would say, I had the presence of mind to draw in my legs to make a clear pathway to the podium. If only I had drawn them in a little further. Her leg made contact with my foot which was protruding ever so slightly into the aisle. At that instant time stopped and the vastness of eternity spread out before me. My earlier reference in this column to Einstein is appropriate here.
I am not a religious person, but during that moment of eternity, I engaged in an intense negotiation with a higher power. To avoid the catastrophe that I envisioned, and my being held responsible for it, I put a number of options on the table. One, for example, that all my published opinions from that day forward would be depublished, was rejected out of hand. Apparently I was not giving up much. Indeed, my bargaining position was so weak that I seriously considered death as a "viable "option. I was so apprehensive that I forgot the deal I made, but time started again, and we were back in the courtroom. The sound of timpani drums was in the air. Justice Lillie, did a graceful, barely noticeable, two step and proceeded to the podium. She began her words to the Commission with: “I intend to speak on behalf of the nominee despite Justice Gilbert’s attempt to trip me.”
Justice Lillie might complain that we are making too big a fuss over her. But I know that she is pleased that the building that bears her name as well as the numerous branches of the Los Angeles County Law Library throughout the county provide access to legal information and consequently, access to justice. Our support of the library invigorates this principle and also pays tribute to an exceptional jurist. For me it is a way of not having to say a final good-bye to a dear friend and colleague.

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