Judge Lillian Kern served in the Navy and blazed a trail as the first elected woman judge in the Montgomery County court system, and legend has it that she imposed a strict dress code in her domestic relations courtroom.
“There’s no doubt that if you walked into Lillian Kern’s courtroom in slacks, that she would tell you to leave and show back up when you are wearing an appropriate-length skirt, hose and closed-toe pumps,” Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Mary Wiseman said Tuesday. “If you walked in with a scarf around your neck or if — there was a time when it was common for female lawyers to wear a scarf-type tie — she did not appreciate that, and would tell the female attorneys that they needed to go find their pearls.”
Kern, 83, of Oakwood, died May 19 after battling dementia. She is survived by her husband of 58 years, Thomas. Visitation is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, with a Mass of Christian Burial at 10:30 a.m.
“She was viewed as a legal titan, someone that everyone had great respect for and great admiration for,” Wiseman said. “She knew her stuff, and she knew it cold, by the book. She was revered as being an expert in her field.”
A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Kern had educational degrees from the University of Miami and the University of Cincinnati. She taught in Miami before entering the United States Navy and serving as a personnel officer. After another stint teaching, Kern entered law school at George Washington University before moving with her husband to Dayton, where she taught and resumed her law studies.
Kern was a Montgomery County assistant prosecuting attorney from 1966 to 1977 and was elected in 1977, serving as Domestic Relations Court judge for 12 years until 1988.
“I remember working with Lillian when I was an assistant prosecutor,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said. “She was demanding and firm, while still being fair. Lillian possessed the right amount of empathy for both the victim and the defendant, while also respecting the rights of both.”
Wiseman said Kern faced steep barriers.
“She was a trailblazer,” Wiseman said. “She is someone that judges like myself and my other female colleagues all on the bench can look to and say she accomplished so much. Because of the work that she did, our path has been made easier.”
Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Tucker served as Kern’s law clerk from May 1979 until May 1980. He described her as a formal taskmaster and said he’d had to redo his writings for her.
“I really learned a lot about what a judge expects, how legal writing should be composed and how to go about the business of researching and writing for judges,” Tucker said. “She was a significant influence in my life.”
Kern served and led many legal and civic organizations, and received awards from Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Ohio Supreme Court and was recognized for special service to the community by the Dayton Daily News’ Top Ten Women judges’ committee.
Kern is the second ex-Montgomery County judge to die recently. On May 13, Judge Robert L. Nolan died in Destin, Fla. Nolan served in various capacities including domestic relations and juvenile courts from 1958 until 1990.