Herma Hill Kay, 1st female dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, dies at 82

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Herma Hill Kay, the first female dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law, died in her sleep Saturday, according to a Berkeley Law press release. She was 82.

Kay joined the campus as a law professor in 1960, and served as dean of Berkeley Law from 1992 to 2000. In addition, she was an active member of the American Bar Association’s Board of Directors, as well as a pioneering legal advocate for women.

“She really was a remarkable person,” said Bryant Garth, a professor of law at UC Irvine who served on the American Bar Association with Kay.

Garth added that Kay was accomplished as a professor, an administrator and a board member, while maintaining her advocacy agenda.

“It’s rare to find someone in legal academia who has accomplished as much as she in all three things,” he said.

According to the press release, before becoming dean, Kay served as a co-reporter on the state commission that drafted the nation’s first no-fault divorce law and co-authored legislation in California, including the California Family Law Act of 1969. This eliminated marital fault, the notion that one spouse must be guilty of marital misconduct as grounds for divorce.

She also co-authored the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act in 1970, which similarly established no-fault standards in divorce nationwide. The act also helped to create standardized legislature on issues like child custody and alimony.

Kay’s interest in gender equity is reflected in both her legal and personal writings. She worked with United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the “Sex-based Discrimination” casebook, published in 1974. This was the first published course material on the subject, according to Melissa Murray, the interim dean of Berkeley Law.

“Her gender equity work is part of her legacy and made huge changes in the law in a number of ways,” said UC Berkeley professor of law Charles Weisselberg.

At the time of her death, Kay was composing a book on the history of fourteen 20th-century American female law professors. She was very interested in the role of women in the legal academy, Garth said.

In both her professional and her personal life, Kay treated all the women she met equally, and worked hard to support them and their careers, according to UC Berkeley professor of law emerita Eleanor Swift.

According to Weisselberg, Kay was also determined to greatly expand the experiential clinic opportunities at the law school. Under her leadership, she waged a multi-year battle along with other faculty to found innovative legal clinics, such as the International Human Rights Law Clinic and Death Penalty Clinic.

Hands-on experience through these initiatives gave campus law students true preparation for the field, Weisselberg said.

“She was full of wisdom, grace and modesty — the perfect kind of person,” Garth said.

Contact Sydney Johnson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydjohnsonnews.

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  • Pwll

    So sorry to hear of the death of Herma Hill Kay. I had the privilege of working for a law project she was in charge of way back in the ’60’s. She was warm and encouraging to this somewhat lost young woman (more a very naive “girl” than a woman) who was transcribing tapes of interviews for the project while completing an MA in English. She almost convinced me to go to law school, but the law boards were on my birthday, so I didn’t take them. I’m not sorry. I found my way into teaching and loved it, but Dr. Kay’s encouragement helped me through that period of my life.