Alice A. Lytle, a pioneering jurist who changed the face of California’s courts as the state’s first female African American Superior Court judge, died Dec. 21, 2018, following a brief illness.
The cause was pulmonary embolism, said niece Kelly Lytle-Hernandez. Lytle was 79.
Loved ones, colleagues and contemporaries described her as intellectual, quick-witted and down-to-earth, a trailblazer and a role model, and a jurist who blended justice with compassion.
“She had intellect, but she also had a personal side,” said Windie O. Scott, an attorney and close friend of Lytle’s who broke ground of her own as the first African American woman to lead the Sacramento Bar Association. “She could speak that language, but then came down to the people. She wasn’t above everyone else. She was a judge for the people.”
Born March 2, 1939, in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Alice Athenia Lytle was the eighth of 10 children in a family that was part of the Great Migration of black Americans north from the Deep South.
Lytle’s father, Lacey, who worked as a janitor in the building where they lived, and her mother, Margaret, moved the family to New York with its promise of free education.
“She was very proud of the fact that she was from New York and that she was able to take advantage of the opportunity provided by her parents,” said brother Cecil Lytle, a professor emeritus of music and provost emeritus of Thurgood Marshall College at the University of California, San Diego. “She felt education was the road out of poverty, and she wanted to extend that franchise.”
Family, children and social justice would later become the central narratives that ran through Lytle’s life.
Those themes became hallmarks of Lytle’s 20 years on the Sacramento bench, a tenure marked by her humanity, now-commonplace innovations and a progressive rethinking of juvenile justice.
“Every child was her child,” said sister-in-law Betty Lytle.
Lytle was appointed to the Sacramento Municipal Court bench by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1983 after years in various roles in his first administration. She went on to serve as the Municipal Court’s presiding judge and, from 1995 to 1996, sat as presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court’s Juvenile Court.
Lytle’s impact was quickly felt. In 1985, she and fellow Sacramento Judge Rudolph R. Loncke established La Casita — the little house — a waiting room at downtown Sacramento’s Gordon Schaber Courthouse that was a first-of-its-kind space for children whose parents or family members were before the court.
Before developing the idea that would become La Casita, Lytle would often invite children from the gallery into her chambers, where a box of toys awaited.
“She saw the court from the child’s perspective,” said niece Lytle-Hernandez, a professor of history and African American studies at UCLA. “She saw how to make it more humane.”
An oversized teddy bear perched near her bench was a potent symbol — a familiar, comforting sight for children in what could be an intimidating, overwhelming place.
The stuffed toy would become one of Lytle’s proudest possessions.
“She was one of these people who could step back and identify an injustice that was not on the calendar,” said Sacramento attorney Charity Kenyon. “She saw all of these children in the backs of courtrooms and crying in the hallways. She said we need a place for these children to rest and play away from the tension that’s part of their lives in courthouses.”
The idea met with resistance and skepticism at the time, but Lytle persevered.
“They said, ‘That’s just the way it is. Courtrooms aren’t built for children,’” Kenyon said. “But she saw that that’s not a just response. It’s not the way it should be. Let’s change it.”
Today, children’s waiting rooms are standard features in courthouses across California and are a part of her rich legacy, Kenyon said.
“Her legacy is quite physical in the children’s waiting rooms across the state, but her legacy is also a demonstration of how smart, gracious people can grapple with issues outside the courtroom that won’t be dissuaded by skepticism,” Kenyon said.
Lytle’s work on behalf of young people in and out of the court system arose from an innate connection to children and her own large, tight-knit family — for years, Lytle lived next door to sister Margaret Pearson in Sacramento’s Woodside neighborhood before Pearson’s death.
“She was the glue of our family – 10 siblings and she made sure we were all in touch. It mirrors her public affection,” Cecil Lytle said. Judge Lytle spent her final Thanksgiving with her brother’s family in San Diego, a respite from the Central Valley’s smoke-filled skies during November’s raging wildfires.
“Her family really supported one another. She was definitely a family person,” Scott said. “She always said it was because of her older brothers and sisters that she was able to do what she did. She pushed that a lot.”
Retired Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly, now the court’s chief executive officer, served alongside Lytle in Juvenile Court. Connelly remembered his former colleague fondly.
“Judge Alice was a goddess at the Juvenile Court. She literally saved hundreds of kids,” Connelly said in a statement. “The good judge was respected and loved — a mentor for us all.”
Lytle also rallied aid and support for teenage mothers in programs including the Sacramento Birthing Project and Healthy Teen Mothers Project and established the SacraMentor Program to help juveniles in trouble with the law.
On the Juvenile Court bench, Lytle challenged how justice was meted out to minors, championing a more thoughtful approach, said Lytle-Hernandez, a national expert on the intersecting histories of race, immigration, policing and incarceration in the United States.
“She said, ‘We need to love these children. When they’re offending, that’s a sign that they’ve been offended against,’” Lytle-Hernandez said.
“She was an intellectual, a thinker about the whole way we’re going about (juvenile justice), saying there’s got to be a better way. It was a culture of punishment rather than healing. She was about a more holistic approach,” Lytle-Hernandez said. “The child was the symptom of what was broken. As black women, we’re among the first to see and the first to fight back. She did it – from the bench.”
The law nearly missed Lytle. Medicine was her first passion, and after graduating New York’s Hunter College in 1961, the future judge went to work as a medical technician in pediatric cardiology in New York and at the University of California, San Francisco.
But the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 changed that trajectory and set Lytle on a path that redefined her career and inspired other women to follow.
“She was very seriously committed to social justice,” Betty Lytle recalled. After King was slain, “her motivations grew. She thought she could be a voice for people.”
Lytle graduated from UC San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law in 1973, and by 1975, Lytle was a legal analyst in the young governor’s first administration.
Less than a decade later, Lytle would make history as Sacramento County’s first black female judge. She was elevated to the Superior Court when California consolidated county Municipal and Superior courts in 1998, where she sat alone as the state’s only woman African American Superior Court jurist until months before her retirement in 2002.
Lytle’s work continued into retirement. Brown called on Lytle again in 2016, appointing her to the Attorney General’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board, charged with studying past and current profiling by law enforcement and recommending policies that would eliminate it. She would serve on the board until this past November.
A voracious reader throughout her life — histories and biographies were her favorites — Lytle’s town house was home to thousands of volumes.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do with the thousands of books in the house,” brother Cecil mused. “Her personal life reflected her intellectual life.”
On and off the bench, Lytle’s impact on a generation of woman lawyers and professionals in Sacramento and beyond remained profound. She received numerous awards during her career. Her last came Nov. 17, when she was honored by the Sacramento chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
“She was someone who was a path-setter, a barrier-breaker,” said Lytle-Hernandez. “I learned (history) at my aunt’s knee.”
“For a generation of women, she really was our political mother. She taught us how to push for policy change,” she said. “She showed us how to be advocates, professionals to change conditions in the world.”
“I am an African American lawyer. Judge Lytle was the only African American woman lawyer on the bench for 20 years. She was the only one,” Scott said. “She was very supportive. She would lecture you if you wanted to give up. She was a woman of the civil rights movement. She said you have to continue the struggle. That’s what she would want us to do. .... She was a legend. No question about it.”
Judge Lytle is survived by her brother Cecil Lytle and his wife, Betty, of Southern California; her brother Henry Lytle of North Dakota; sisters Gwendolyn Lytle of Southern California, Audrey Johnson of New York and Florence Lassiter of New Jersey; and numerous nieces and nephews.
A celebration of life will be held 1 p.m. March 2 at Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, 2425 Sierra Blvd., Sacramento.
Donations are suggested to:
▪ The Birthing Project of the Center for Community Health and Wellbeing, 1900 T St., Sacramento, CA 95814
▪ Wellspring Women’s Center, 3414 4th Ave., P.O. Box 5728, Sacramento, CA 95817
▪ My Sister’s House, 3053 Freeport Blvd., No. 120, Sacramento, CA 95818
▪ United Negro College Fund, 1805 Seventh St., NW, Washington, D.C., 20001