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An icon. An institution. A pioneer for women in the legal world. The epitome of an appellate justice. The woman who should have been the first of her gender on the U.S. Supreme Court. The accolades poured in Monday for Second District Court of Appeal Justice Mildred Lillie, who died of cancer at the age of 87 at 1:30 a.m. Sunday at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles. A 1938 graduate of what would later be called Boalt Hall School of Law, Lillie served on the bench for 55 years, beginning with her appointment to the Los Angeles County Municipal Court in 1947 by then-Gov. Earl Warren and continuing through an 18-year tenure as presiding justice of the Second District’s Division Seven. “She served longer than any judge on any California court today,” Gov. Gray Davis said in a prepared statement, “and she was the longest-serving appellate justice in the history of our state. Her service extended through the terms of eight governors.” Davis and others noted that Lillie wrote more than 3,000 opinions during her career. Lillie, who was born on Jan. 25, 1915, in Ida Grove, Iowa, called herself “chronologically gifted — old” while accepting an award for 50 years of government service in 1993. She then highlighted the events she’d lived through — World War I, the Great Depression, the birth of Mickey Mouse and the launching of the first man into space. “The only things I have missed,” Lillie said, “are the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” Lillie almost made a bit of history herself. In 1971, having been on the Second District since 1958, Lillie was then-President Richard Nixon’s leading candidate to become the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. She seemed a lock, but former White House Counsel John Dean, in his 2001 book called “The Rehnquist Choice,” wrote that the all-male members of the American Bar Association’s judicial evaluation committee blocked Lillie’s nomination. Eleven of the 12 men voted against her, essentially holding that no woman was qualified for the high court. “I believe that Mildred Lillie was equally, if not more, qualified to be on the Supreme Court than Sandra Day O’Connor,” Dean said in a 2001 interview with Salon. “Justice Lillie had more judicial experience, and was equally as articulate and intelligent.” Nixon eventually appointed William Rehnquist to the position for which Lillie had been vetted. Dean said in his interview that Lillie told him that on a trip to Washington while she was under consideration for the court that a “nice young man” had helped carry her suitcase to the attorney general’s office. It turned out to be Rehnquist. “She liked the fact,” Dean said, “that the chief justice of the United States had once been her baggage handler.” On Monday, fellow jurists said Lillie never let the disappointment of not getting on the nation’s high court bother her. She just went about building a legendary career on the California appellate bench and blazing a path for other women to follow. “She came up in an era when it was hard for women to get a foothold in the practice of law and on the bench,” said fellow Second District Justice Fred Woods Jr., who had known Lillie personally for 15 years. “It’s often said she walked the walk long before others even started to talk the talk.” Earl Johnson Jr., Division Seven’s next most senior justice, said Lillie was “the epitome of what an appellate judge should be” and that she did her job with keen intelligence, wonderful insight and humor. “She loved to tell jokes and hear jokes,” he said. “She was beloved by everybody on the court.” Former California Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, a 50-year friend, said Monday that Lillie was a “wonderful lady and a wonderful justice” who “will be sorely missed.” “Her mind,” he said, “was keen and penetrating right up to the end.” Justice Woods agreed, pointing out that while hospitalized in recent weeks Lillie was still “signing memos and listening to tapes of oral arguments.” “She continued to do her job,” he said. “A very tough lady.” California Chief Justice Ronald George noted that Lillie had attended his and wife Barbara’s wedding, and that he had known her long before he became a judge. “I argued my first cases before her as a new deputy attorney general,” George said. “She was a wonderful friend and an invaluable colleague,” he added. Lillie served as an associate justice pro tem on the California Supreme Court at least 20 times, the final time last October when she filled in for deceased Justice Stanley Mosk when the justices convened in Santa Ana. Eighty-six at the time, Lillie asked piercing questions in a case that pitted officers’ privacy rights against criminal defendants’ fair-trial interests. “She was very intelligent, and she was hard working,” Justice Johnson said. “But more than that, she had wisdom that comes only with a long period of service in this job.” Lillie was widowed twice, first by the death of Cameron Lillie and then in 1996 by the passing of A.V. “Fred” Falcone. Both were lawyers. She is survived by a son, Dewey Falcone, who is a judge in the Norwalk branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court. A funeral mass will be conducted by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the archbishop of Los Angeles, at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 505 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills. Interment will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery, 5835 W. Slauson Ave., Culver City.

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