Retired Pima County judge recalls ‘scratching at glass ceiling’

Lillian Fisher

Editor’s note: Lillian Fisher died June 7, 2015 due to complications from congestive heart failure, less than two weeks after this article was published. 

The Honorable Lillian Fisher will be 94 on June 18. A retired Pima County Superior Court judge, she received the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ first Lifetime Achievement Award on April 15. Fisher was a founding member of the Magellan Circle, the donor society for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, which supports student travel, visiting scholars, faculty research and excellence-in-teaching awards.

The award was given in recognition of her dedication to literature, the social sciences, community service and education in Southern Arizona — which sums up her commitment to the Tucson community for the past 60 years. A judge for 16 years, Fisher was an advocate for women in law. She helped found the Arizona Women Lawyers Association and was a founding member of the National Association of Women Judges. She also helped establish many Tucson organizations, including the Tucson Botanical Gardens, Southern Arizona Hiking Club and Invisible Theater.

The former judge and her late husband, Bernard, moved to Tucson in 1957 after his U.S. Air Force stint as a dentist in Roswell, N.M. Born in Brooklyn in 1921, she came from an observant Jewish family. Fisher’s grandfather and great uncle immigrated from Vilna, Lithuania, and were both rabbis in the United States. “If you grew up in Brooklyn you were Jewish, unless you were Italian or Chinese,” Fisher told the AJP. “We all got along reasonably well.”

Growing up in the 1930s, she listened to family members discuss Zionism around the kitchen table. “They were divided in the need for an independent Jewish State of Israel,” says Fisher, who graduated pre-med from Brooklyn College in 1942. In April 1948, prior to Israel’s statehood, “I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. I was standing on the street corner waving a little blue and white flag collecting shekels for Israel.”

Following Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, she and her husband were some of the first tourists to visit Jerusalem. “We saw the opening of the Mandelbaum Gate separating the Israeli and Arab sections of the city,” she says. “We watched observant men dancing on tables.”

Fisher’s two daughters, Margie Cunningham and Anne Segal, practice law in Tucson. Her son, Michael, who lives in West Palm Springs, Fla., is a high school science teacher. She has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Paul Cunningham, one of her grandsons, is a Tucson City Council member.

“Family has always been my highest priority,” says Fisher. “That’s what Jewish mothers do. People thought they were insulting me when they called me ‘a Jewish mother.’ I thought being a Jewish mother was about being someone who cared, giving children the best you could.”

When her youngest child entered kindergarten, Fisher joined a garden club. “I remember a meeting where we spent an hour deciding what color irises to plant,” she says, which wasn’t how a smart young woman wanted to spend her time. Fisher enrolled in the James E. Rogers College of Law at the UA in 1960, earning her law degree in 1963.

That’s when she started “to scratch the glass ceiling. I had to use the second floor bathroom for women who worked there,” she says. “I started making noises but I didn’t break the glass ceiling.” At home, “I had a family with three kids. I had a husband who didn’t mind my going to law school but he wanted his supper on the table.”

After graduation, Fisher opened a law office in the building that housed her husband’s dental practice on 22nd Street and Alvernon Way. “I was the only lawyer east of Alvernon,” she says. Her practice grew through word of mouth and by 1974 she decided to run for judge. There were procedural complications while Fisher and her husband were off hiking in Russia, followed by a trip to Sweden to visit her brother who lived there. She received a wire from her son, Michael: Her candidacy was a go.

Prior to the election Fisher often heard, “‘Is she crazy? She’s got a Brooklyn accent. She’s Jewish. She didn’t go to law school [until 10 years ago]. She has three kids.’ It wasn’t very pleasant,” she says. “When I won I became a symbol for women. I got support from women all over. I was middle class. I wasn’t rich and I wasn’t poor. There were very few women judges. Nobody could tell me you don’t know what it’s like to have a family and work. I had immigrant parents.”

At the time, she notes, “there was a lot of skepticism from younger male lawyers and judges.” In her 16 years as a judge, Fisher says, “what means the most to me is that I established the Court Appointed Special Advocates program for neglected and abused children. It’s been adopted in other jurisdictions all around the country. I’m very proud of that.”

Before the advocate program, Fisher recalls her “most controversial years as a judge” as a child advocate from the bench. “A 14-year-old boy was kicked out of his house because his stepfather didn’t get along with him,” she says, adding that the boy didn’t have food or a bed in the family home. “I said to the boy’s mother, ‘This is your son,’” hoping to encourage compassion. Fisher directed her staff members to send a bed and food to the home. Later, after discovering that the mother and stepfather took the bed and food, leaving the boy to himself, they helped him find a home with a relative.

In the early 1980s, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers brought South American refugee children to Fisher who asked a minister friend to assist the children. “The next day,” she says, “I read in the paper how I imprisoned children.”

Fisher served as a part-time faculty member of the UA James E. Rogers College of Law and established the Lillian S. Fisher Prize in Environmental Law and Public Policy.

Fisher settled into mandatory retirement in 1991. Around the same time, her husband became ill with a brain tumor and Parkinson’s disease and she became his caretaker until he died in 2001. Then she dealt with her own bout of cancer.

These days, says Fisher, “what’s scary to me is that someplace on this earth there are educated, supposedly civilized people who are cutting off people’s heads. We used to think it was awful to smoke in the bathroom. But the pendulum of history swings back and forth. I’m optimistic. I try to go with the flow.”

As for living in Tucson, “we never looked back,” says Fisher. “One of my contributions to the [Jewish community] was that everyone knew I was Jewish and I helped as much as I could. I like to think that the Fisher family, through its progeny, has made Tucson a better place. I think of what I did for children as meeting a community need, and it wasn’t always easy.”