Herma Hill Schreter Kay (1934-2017)

Professor Herma Hill Kay died at her home in San Francisco on June 10, 2017. She was a respected teacher, colleague, and personality at Boalt Hall, the University of California’s law school in Berkeley for 57 years. After obtaining her undergraduate degree (magna cum laude) in anthropology from Southern Methodist University she attended the University of Chicago law school, and after a year as the law clerk for Roger Traynor, legendary Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, she began her tenure as a law school professor at Boalt. I never had a class with Professor Kay and can’t claim her as a friend, but we did have one funny encounter in Seattle years after I left California.

In 1963 Professor Kay shocked the Boalt community by divorcing her first husband and marrying one of her students. It wasn’t so much a scandal as a curiosity. There was titillating gossip but no obvious backlash. She continued to teach and he continued on to graduation. With all the voyeurism, political correctness, and sexual politics in today’s air I can’t imagine what the school administration’s response would be nowadays. Nevertheless, the only public commentary I’m aware of occurred during the  law students’ annual theatrical when a verse was inserted in the score memorializing her action. Herma was a class act and her amused response to the song’s verse confirmed it.

I thought the song was so amusing I never forgot it, and in 2005 when she came to Seattle to host a fundraising luncheon I had a chance to refresh her memory by singing the verse to her during a Q&A after lunch.

Herma Hill Schreter Kay loved anthropology.

Shed her last husband without an apology.

Turned family law into more than mythology

While I was reading the regs.

Amusement and law school theatricals aside I’ve been a longtime admirer of Herma’s. She retired in 2016 after serving the Boalt Hall community for 57 years as teacher, dean, and advocate. She joined the faculty in 1960, two years before I started, and served as dean from 1992–2000. Berkeley was ahead of its time and so was she. At the time of her appointment, in 1960, she was one of only 13 women serving as full professors at major law schools. To Berkeley’s credit she wasn’t the first woman professor at Boalt. That distinction was held by Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong, Herma’s mentor, who, in 1935, became the second woman to become a full professor at an ABA accredited law school.

While active at the school, Professor Kay taught family law, conflicts of law, and diversity in legal education. She wrote extensively, including a casebook co-authored by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sex-based Discrimination, and when Sandra Day O’Conner, another friend and colleague, retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, Professor Kay was on the short list as her replacement.

Her marriage to the law student ended in divorce but she married again, had three children and four grandchildren, one of whom graduated from Boalt shortly before her grandmother’s death at age 82.

I was shocked to read her obituary in the New York Times this weekend and shocked to discover she was only two years older than I am. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have surprised me that she married a student. We were all about the same age, but because of her faculty position she seemed older – or at least more serious.

RIP Herma Hill Schreter Kay Brodsky


** Photos courtesy of NY Times and University of California

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