Ex-Chief Justice Wright, Foe of Death Penalty, Dies

Times Staff Writers

Donald R. Wright, the retired California chief justice whose independence led then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to lament having ever appointed him to the post, died Thursday at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena after a heart attack. He was 78.

Wright, whose contemporaries rated him as one of the top judges in California history, angered Reagan in 1972 by writing one of the high court’s most controversial opinions--the majority ruling striking down the state’s death penalty law.

“We cannot assume that capital punishment is not so cruel as to offend contemporary standards of decency,” Wright said, describing the death penalty as an inhumane act that “dehumanizes and degrades all who participate in its process.”

Reagan said that in handing down its opinion, the court had placed itself “above the will of the people.”


Later that same year, the court’s abolition of the death penalty was countermanded by an initiative. In 1976, Wright wrote another opinion declaring the new death penalty unconstitutional, but that ruling was countermanded, too--by yet another death penalty law, the one that remains in effect today.

The Wright court also was marked by an expansion of the law. It expanded the rules regarding the exclusion of unlawfully obtained evidence in criminal cases. It barred police from spying on people in public restrooms and from attending university classes to gather information on dissidents.

In the area of civil law it required that public schools in the poorest parts of California receive funding equal to schools in the richest parts of the state and it required that a defendant found at fault in a civil lawsuit pay a person who was injured even if that person was partly to blame for the accident.

Wright’s opposition to the death penalty wasn’t the only position he took that angered Reagan. Another was his refusal to retire while Reagan was still governor, which would have enabled Reagan to appoint his successor. A third was his refusal to support Reagan’s appointment of William Clark as an associate justice of the court.


Wright, who as chief justice was a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission, questioned Clark’s qualifications. Clark had never been a judge and had difficulty passing the State Bar exam. But Clark was confirmed and later went on to be President Reagan’s secretary of the Interior.

No Warm Feelings

“He honestly didn’t feel Clark was qualified,” Associate Justice Stanley Mosk said Thursday, noting that even after Clark took the bench he continued to resent Wright’s vote opposing his confirmation. “There never were warm feelings there.”

Although Reagan concluded that his appointment of Wright had been a mistake, others--among them his associates on the bench--disagreed strongly.


“His administration of the judicial branch was masterful,” Raymond L. Sullivan, a retired associate justice of the court, said. “In a word, his performance was superb.”

Mosk, a veteran of decades on trial and appellate courts, said that in all his years on the bench, he had known “no more genuine, 18-carat human being beneath a judicial robe than Donald R. Wright. He left the court . . . a towering giant.”

Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, who succeeded Wright, said on Thursday that his “integrity, courage, independence and respect for the rule of law were clearly demonstrated in his leadership . . . He will be greatly missed.”

Retired at 70


Wright retired from the court in 1977, 70 years after his birth to David and Lillie Andrew Wright in the Orange County agricultural community of Placentia.

Reared in Pasadena, he graduated from Stanford University in 1929 before earning his law degree at Harvard University in 1932, the same year he married the former Margaret McClellan.

He practiced law in Pasadena until 1942, when he joined the Army Air Force, serving as a World War II intelligence officer in Alaska before returning to his private practice in 1946.

In 1953, Gov. Earl Warren appointed Wright to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. In 1960, he was elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court, becoming presiding judge in 1967.


Reagan appointed him to the state Court of Appeal in 1968. Two years later, Wright was named California’s chief justice.

The seven years that followed under Wright’s leadership “were good and exciting years,” Mosk recalled Thursday, joining other judges and legal scholars in rating Wright as one of the best jurists ever to serve the state.

Mosk said that during the 1972 conference in which it was decided to strike down the death penalty, several other justices offered to write the controversial opinion, or have it issued unsigned--to avoid embarrassment.

“He would have none of it,” Mosk remembered. “He said: ‘These are my views, and I’m going to stand up and be counted.’ That’s the kind of man he was.”


Bartender Lawsuits

Another controversial opinion authored by Wright was the one that allowed lawsuits to be filed against bartenders serving drinks to obviously intoxicated people who subsequently caused or sustained injury. Like his death penalty opinions, it subsequently was countermanded--in this case, by the Legislature.

One of the most sensitive issues to confront Wright was the question of the late Associate Justice Marshall McComb, who in his final years on the bench became mentally incapable of dealing with the daily workload of the state’s top court.

Wright prompted the inquiry that forced McComb from the court, maintaining that Californians were not getting the services of seven justices, to which they were entitled.


It was not an unfeeling act on Wright’s part, according to his associates.

“At once intelligent and courageous, his leadership was uniquely effective because of the warmth . . . of the man himself in his dealings with his colleagues and with those outside the judiciary,” Sullivan said.

In addition to his wife, Wright is survived by a sister, Mrs. John Mitchell of Palo Alto.

A funeral service will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.


Also contributing to this story was Times staff writer Michael Seiler.