Mary Kay Kane’s death earlier this month from complications of cancer came as a shock to her UC Hastings family, who recalled her unfailing contributions to the school—such as organizing the school’s first alumni network and defending its values in court—and her role as a trailblazer for women in the legal profession.
Kane became the school’s first woman dean in 1993, adding the title of chancellor in 2001. Even after she retired in 2007, she continued coming to campus every day to mentor others and contribute to scholarly research in the field of civil procedure. During the pandemic, she ordered office furniture for her Emeryville condominium to keep up her diligent pace.
“She was extremely dedicated,” said Emeritus Professor Margreth Barrett, her friend of nearly four decades. “She worked every weekday and sometimes on weekends. She really didn’t change pace much from the time she retired until this past April.” That’s when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She faced her last weeks with stoicism and grace, never showing anger or self-pity, Barrett said. She died June 3, leaving no immediate family but countless friends and colleagues.
In typical fashion, Kane was concerned with a report due to the American Law Institute, the leading organization working to develop and improve the law, said Emeritus Professor Leo Martinez. She asked him to take it over and he was happy to let her know when it was delivered on time. The institute later published this tribute.
Martinez, who served under Kane as academic dean, recalled that they started most mornings together, discussing the day’s plan over coffee. He looked forward to those meetings, no matter what was on the agenda. Topics might include any number of weighty issues, such as securing funding from the Legislature or supporting the faculty.
Kane recruited prominent professors to succeed a group known as the Sixty Five Club. Dean David Snodgrass had recruited brilliant minds from other law schools who were involuntarily retired at age 65. Those Hastings professors included Roger J. Traynor and Raymond L. Sullivan from the California Supreme Court, as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
As dean, Kane made the decision to defend the school against a lawsuit brought by the Christian Legal Society challenging the school’s nondiscrimination policy. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with UC Hastings in its refusal to accommodate the society’s anti-gay views. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the 5-4 ruling in the case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in 2010.
The following year, Kane invited Ginsburg to join her at the San Francisco Opera the night before the justice was scheduled to make a historic visit to UC Hastings. The two women shared a love for the opera. But Ginsburg’s plans were interrupted when her plane had to be evacuated before takeoff due to an engine problem. The 78-year-old slid down an evacuation chute and caught a later flight. To Kane’s delight, Ginsburg arrived in time for the second act.
Friends said Kane loved to travel. But her mind never wandered far from the job. She often worked during plane rides home, dashing off notes to faculty with feedback about their scholarly publications or compiling a list of projects to begin tackling when she touched down.
“She was a planner, not surprising given her passion for civil procedure,” said David Seward, whom she hired as chief financial officer in 1994. “She had a strong sense of the right thing to do and she was not going to be thrown off track.”
In a videotaped interview with the Association of American Law Schools, Kane reminisced about how the school had become her family and the joy she felt in completing one of her final projects as dean, which was revamping the library and administration building at 200 McAllister. She was surprised when the three major donors chose to give up their naming rights and name the building after her. “It says so much about the alumni and how incredibly generous they are,” she said. “The place has been family to me. It has been truly, truly family.”
Emeritus Professor Steve Schwarz said Kane showed her support for faculty by keeping up to date on the scholarship of faculty members and looking out for professional opportunities. It was her connections, he said, that got him appointed to an American Law Institute advisory committee overseeing the restatement of the law of nonprofit charitable organizations.
“She really was the consummate institutionalist,” Schwarz said. “She really cared about the school more than just about anybody I could name.”
Dean David Faigman recalled how she welcomed him to campus in July 1987 with a 10-page memo full of “sage practical advice, unadorned with romance or pretense.”
“Mary Kay was a rare combination of outstanding teacher, highly accomplished scholar, meticulous administrator, and inspirational leader,” Faigman wrote. “She was generous with her time for colleagues, for students, and for the profession.”
Kane’s scholarly legacy in the field of civil procedure will be difficult to match, said Professor Richard Marcus, who described her as a major force in producing the flagship treatise on federal civil procedure, on which she was the author of 14 volumes. In 2003 then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Kane as academic member of the influential Judicial Conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, where she helped revise and rewrite dozens of civil rules. At the same time, she found time to be involved in leading two prominent legal education associations: the Association of American Law Schools and the International Association of Law Schools, which published this tribute.
In the video interview, Kane talked about growing up outside of Detroit as a shy only child who spent lots of time reading and being around adults.
She originally wanted to become a concert pianist. Although she was accepted at The Julliard School of Music in New York City, her parents convinced her to pursue a more practical education at the University of Michigan. She earned a bachelor’s degree English, then a JD.
Kane did not want a funeral, but agreed to a memorial service, which will be held at 5 p.m. on Sept. 9. It will be held in Cotchett Law Center. Livestream information.
UC Hastings Law is establishing an endowed chair to honor her legacy. Please make a gift here if you wish to support the Mary Kay Kane Professorship of Law.