The early warning signs for the 1986 election year in California seem to indicate that the most interesting and volatile campaign may not be the race for governor or the U.S. Senate, but the move to dump Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and at least two of her colleagues from the state Supreme Court.
It promises to polarize the left and right of the political spectrum and, if the opening salvos are typical, will touch off all sorts of emotion having little to do with the merits of whether Bird, appointed to a vacancy on the court by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1977, should be confirmed by voters for a full 12-year term.
It also may turn into a full-employment act for political consultants and direct-mail fund-raising firms.
Just a few days ago, the most serious of the dump-Bird groups, which calls itself Crime Victims for Court Reform and is directed by Los Angeles political consultant Bill Roberts, gave a clue to the tone of its campaign by launching a "Bye, Bye Birdie" postcard drive to try to persuade Bird to resign before she is thrown out.
That was followed a day later with an announcement from a small group of Republican legislators from Orange County that they are forming a "California Bird Watchers Society" to seek the chief justice's ouster. The prime mover is Rep. William Dannemeyer of Fullerton, who is looking for a gimmick to raise his visibility for a possible U.S. Senate bid.
Before that, Bill Butcher and Arnold Forde, the Orange County direct-mail fund-raisers, sent out a letter over the signatures of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, among others, trying to raise money they said would be used to defeat Bird. New Right state Sen. H.L. Richardson of Glendora, ever alert to fund-raising possibilities for his own direct-mail company, used an anti-Bird drive as his reason for a plea for money as early as last November.
Rose Bird is almost as good a name as Tom Hayden's as a sure-fire inducement to get conservative Californians to open their checkbooks.
In essence, the arguments against Bird and two other Brown appointees, Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, are that they are soft on criminals and have failed to implement California's death-penalty law, which may obscure the larger question about the court's performance under Bird.
But catchy slogans and appeals to emotion are not apt to convince anybody that sentiment against Bird and her colleagues crosses party lines, and the various moves to oust her seem at this stage little more than a Republican effort to unseat liberal justices, thus creating vacancies on the court that can be filled through appointment by GOP Gov. George Deukmejian.
So far, the sloganeering has tended to lend credibility to Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti's charge that "the far right wing just doesn't know how to conduct a campaign without being nasty. . . . They just can't help themselves, and they are going to go overboard and they can't control it."
Although Bill Roberts is a one-time Deukmejian campaign manager, the governor has chosen not to associate himself with his former aide's latest venture, or with any of the anti-Bird efforts. And the early direction they are taking is known to disturb some of Deukmejian's closest advisers, who fear a backlash sympathy vote for the chief justice.
But the governor has made it clear time and time again in interviews and press conferences that he intends to vote against Bird and will speak out in his reelection campaign against her. Indeed, Bird is virtually certain to be a major issue in the gubernatorial race, particularly if Deukmejian's opponent once again is Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a Bird supporter whose deputy mayor, Thomas K. Houston, was a top aide to the chief justice when she was in Jerry Brown's Cabinet.
Bird has her allies, too, and trial lawyers and liberal Democrats are with her.
Although she said in an interview not long ago that she is "not a political animal," she has a substantial political organization in place to raise money on her behalf. It is called the Committee to Conserve the Courts, and at the end of the last campaign reporting period six months ago it already had more than $200,000 in the bank, most of it from trial lawyers who have benefited from court decisions on personal-injury law.
Nor is there a problem in finding surrogates to defend her. A telephone call to her office will even produce a suitable referral.
Reynoso and Grodin also are organizing campaign committees. "I'm going to have a campaign," Grodin told a reporter a few days ago. "I'm not going to just sit back, but none of us have an awful lot of time to spend campaigning."
There will, of course, be the usual charges by Bird and her supporters that the court is being politicized by all this activity directed against her, but there are few more political acts than a high court judicial appointment by a governor, regardless of party. Such an appointment is first and foremost a political decision.
So, in that frame of reference and idealism aside, the court is an extension of politics.
There also is the matter of the Constitution, which says that "judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected at large . . . at general elections at the same time and places as the governor. Their terms are 12 years beginning the Monday after Jan. 1 following their election. . . . "
Deukmejian put that in context at a Los Angeles press conference last week. "The members of the Supreme Court are elected officials," he said. "While they do not have individuals who run against them for election, nevertheless their names go on the ballot and people have a right to decide (whether) to give that individual another 12-year term. So I think it is perfectly appropriate for anyone, regardless whether Republicans, Democrats or anyone else, to make that decision and to express themselves. And if they also want to work either for or against that particular candidate they have a perfect right to do so."