From the Archives: Ex-Chief Justice Rose Bird Dies of Cancer at 63

Maura Dolan
Contact ReporterTimes Legal Affairs Writer

Rose Elizabeth Bird, who headed the California Supreme Court for nearly 10 years before voters ousted her in a historic recall, died Saturday after a long fight with breast cancer. She was 63.

Bird died about 3 p.m. at Stanford University Hospital, where she had been admitted less than two weeks ago. The exact cause of her death has not been determined, said Raj Chabre, a friend of Bird.

Revered as a heroine by many liberals, Bird lost a retention election in 1986 largely because she had voted to overturn every death penalty case she reviewed. She was the state's only female chief justice and its first female Cabinet secretary.

Bird spent the years after leaving the court living reclusively in Palo Alto. She filled the hours working for charities, tending to her garden and dogs and occasionally teaching. She strove to stay out of the public eye, but the electorate would not be allowed to forget her.

Long after she had retreated from public life, Bird evoked such antipathy among conservatives that political candidates wielded her name as a weapon during elections. She became, as one of her friends once put it, a "political untouchable."

Liberals did not desert her, however. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in 1997 gave her its Conscience Award. She was praised as a jurist who voted her conscience and moved the law toward protecting the rights of workers, criminal defendants, the poor and minorities.

"You rarely hear judges talk about justice," said U.S. 9th Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt. "They talk about the law. She was someone who talked about justice and why we had law."

"Whether you agreed or disagreed with her," he said, "she was someone who should have been given our thanks and respect. . . . She should have been a giant of a figure and instead ended up as a symbol of an issue where the public sentiment was on the other side. She really was the fall guy for people who wanted to see more executions."

Bird entered the law when it offered few opportunities for women. Many private firms refused to hire them. After graduating near the top of her class at UC Berkeley's law school, Bird clerked for the Nevada Supreme Court. She later became the first woman to serve as a deputy public defender in Santa Clara County.

She rose to prominence with former Gov. Jerry Brown, chauffeuring him around during his 1974 campaign for governor. He brought her to Sacramento when he was elected and named her secretary of Agriculture and Services, a position traditionally held by a grower.

Her intellect and direct manner impressed others at Cabinet meetings. She worked hard and spoke her mind. But her forceful style also made her enemies. She became known as prickly, prone to making disagreements personal, and unrelenting in her positions.

Bird was one of the few women of any prominence in Sacramento at the time. Before Brown's arrival, the capital was a lobbyists' town, an old boys' club. Lawmakers and lobbyists hung out at a watering hole where a woman swam around in a fish tank for their entertainment.

Bird set a distinctly different tone in her pantsuits and prim French roll and bows. The young lawyer gave news conference after news conference about efforts to resolve the farm labor trouble that was then convulsing California and sparking boycotts.

As agriculture secretary, she banned the use of a short-handled hoe that forced farm workers to spend hours stooped, and helped write a 1975 law that gave farm workers collective bargaining.

Although Bird was no friend of agriculture—the industry would later join in the campaign to boot her from the state high court—she complained that the board was too aligned with the farm workers and in danger of losing its credibility.

Brown appointed Bird to the court in 1977, 27 months after she had become a Cabinet secretary. He predicted at a news conference that her appointment would be remembered as an act of lasting significance.

It immediately provoked criticism. Bird, just 40 at the time, had never been a judge, and no woman had ever served on the California Supreme Court. One of those who objected was Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, at the time a bishop who was chairman of Brown's farm relations board. Mahony wrote a letter that questioned Bird's "emotional stability" and criticized her as "vindictive."

Friends said Bird confided in later years that she wished Brown had made her an associate justice, rather than chief. Brown said in an interview that she never objected to the appointment.

"It may have been a mistake to thrust her at a young age and a woman into that atmosphere and try to make her chief justice," said Reinhardt, who saw Bird socially after she left the court. "She came to a court that was hostile, and she was never really given a fair chance."

Bird complained that members of the Supreme Court snubbed her. Shortly after her confirmation, she related to an interviewer: "Wiley Manuel, who was appointed to the court when I was, called to ask me if he could go with me to the lunch the other justices were having for us that day. I had to tell him I didn't know anything about the lunch. Obviously, I wasn't invited."

Her critics said she provoked the distance. Described as insecure and defensive, she changed the locks on her chambers door and isolated herself with a few aides. Associate justices had to make appointments to meet with her, and she kept an aide beside her during those chats.

"Political and diplomatic skills, they weren't her great strength," Reinhardt said. "After a while, all the attacks took their toll. Anybody who had been subjected to what she was from the day she walked on that court would become a little less trusting, a little less open. Those experiences leave wounds."

Following Brown's example, Bird eschewed the material perks of chief justice. She sold the court Cadillac, stopped the practice of holding California Judicial Council meetings at attractive resorts and stayed at modest motels when she traveled on court business.

Aware she was disliked, Bird tried to ease the strains. She baked cakes and cookies for the justices' private conferences and gave office birthday parties. At Christmas, she acted as Santa Claus and passed out gifts to the court's employees. Her efforts met with derision.

Bird confided in a 1987 interview that she cared about what others thought of her and felt misunderstood.

"I would perhaps like people to say two things about me," she said. "That she cared and that she tried to be a good person."

Bird worked hard at the court, and her legal rulings were solidly researched and thorough, scholars said. "They were first rate," said Justice Stanley Mosk, a Democrat whom Brown passed over to make Bird chief. "Even if you disagreed with the result, you would have to concede they were well-prepared and well-reasoned from her point of view."

Bird went out of her way to file solo opinions, even if her views differed only slightly from the majority's, said UC Berkeley law professor Steve Barnett.

"She was an intelligent and courageous judge dedicated to her job and to the law," the law professor said. "Her opinions, while unfailingly or extremely liberal, were well researched and thoroughly argued. What she lacked was good judgment and restraint, a feeling of how far one could go."

"If Jerry Brown had appointed her an associate justice rather than a chief justice, she might have remained on the court,' he added. "Her appointment as chief justice was a tragedy for her and the court."

State Supreme Court justices must stand for retention during the first gubernatorial election after their appointment. Bird barely squeaked by.

The Los Angeles Times reported on election day that the Bird court had delayed releasing a politically sensitive criminal case until after the election. Bird denied the charge and asked the Commission on Judicial Performance to investigate.

The public probe proved a public relations disaster for the Bird court. The investigation failed to produce charges against any justice, but exposed the acrimony, pettiness and divisions that wracked the court under Bird.

The next time she was on the ballot, conservatives raised millions of dollars to defeat her, focusing on her votes against the death penalty. Prosecutors lined up against Bird. One of the many bumper stickers in the campaign referred to a notorious rapist-killer who had recently terrorized Los Angeles.

"Free the Night Stalker," it read. "Reelect Rose Bird."

Bird assembled a campaign, but her opponents vastly outspent her. She adopted a new hairstyle and makeup that gave her a glamorous appearance. But she did not change her legal and political views, and voters rejected her by a 2-to-1 margin.

Associate Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, also Brown appointees, were defeated with Bird. Some blamed their demise on Bird, insisting she should have resigned rather than risk an election that threatened two others.

Chabre said she believed Republicans and industry financed the campaign against the three in an effort to establish a Republican majority on the court before a legal fight over reapportionment reached it.

"She was one of the most ethical human beings I have ever met in my life," Chabre said. "She ignored her own personal interests to always do what she felt was right."

Bird retreated to the Palo Alto home she shared with her mother, Anne. Bird never married, and she and her mother had long been close. Bird's father deserted her and her two older brothers when she was 5. He died shortly thereafter, and Anne Bird moved her children from Arizona to New York, where she supported the family with a factory job. In later years, Bird often brought her mother with her to social events.

Even away from the court, Bird received death threats and worried about her safety. On the front gate of her home, she put up a sign, "No Admittance." On the front of the house, another sign warned: "Beware of Dog." Her address was scratched off the front curb.

"She kind of withdrew into a shell almost," University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelmen said. "There was a time, a year or two after the election, that she didn't respond to calls or answer letters."

Friends and associates found themselves cut off for unknown reasons. Always one to demand loyalty, Bird dismissed anyone she felt had transgressed.

Unlike other former justices, Bird was largely shunned by the legal establishment. No Bay Area law school invited her to join its faculty, perhaps out of fear of offending conservative alumni, and job offers were scant.

When her mother grew ill, Bird cared for her at home for as long as possible. The elder woman eventually had to be placed in convalescent care, and Bird visited her every day until she died at the age of 86 in 1991.

Two years later, Bird volunteered her services at an East Palo Alto community law center. She gave the group her name, but did not mention her past, not even her law degree. The lawyers at the center assumed Bird was a bored matron and assigned her to the copy machine.

The former chief justice dutifully copied documents and filed for months until a law school dean alerted the staff to the real identify of the woman they called "Rose."

Aghast at their mistake, the lawyers tried to enlist Bird's help with the law. But Bird was by then no longer licensed to practice law--she could not afford the bar dues--and preferred to remain on the fringes. The women at the clinic befriended her, and one even named her daughter after the former chief justice.

After leaving the clinic, she taught for 5 1/2 months at the University of Sydney in Australia, where she was known for her flair for teaching and her frugality.

Back in the United States, she occupied herself reading to the blind, working at a food bank and writing occasionally for newspaper editorial pages.

She also battled breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy on her left breast in November 1996. She had undergone surgery four times on her right breast between 1976 and 1980. During her long struggle with cancer, Bird consistently refused chemotherapy and radiation. She instead treated herself with large doses of vitamin C, a vegetarian diet consisting primarily of raw vegetables and wheat grass juice.

Bird is survived by her brothers Philip, a resident of Hawaii, and Jack, who lives in Arizona.

Funeral arrangements are pending.


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