Justice Wright's Legacy

Donald R. Wright was a man much honored in the years, 1970-1977, during which he served as chief justice of California. All the honors were deserved. Wright, who died Thursday, was among the nation's most able jurists.

"Great judges are expert technicians of the law, but the breadth of their understanding must far exceed that," we wrote on the occasion of his retirement. "It must, as Wright demonstrated in his opinion on the death penalty, encompass a conception of what a truly civilized society ought to be."

We remain confident that this will be the judgment of time, regardless of the reversals of some of the great achievements of the court in electoral initiatives and legislative actions. Courage, intellectual rectitude, independence and a knowledge of law and history permitted Wright to tread a path not always popular in a post whose independence and integrity are singularly essential to the proper functioning of American society.

He was first appointed a judge in 1953 by Earl Warren, then governor and soon to write a new history of inspired leadership of the Supreme Court of the United States, as Wright would do two decades later on the high court of California. Wright brought to the bench rigorous attention to the law and its context in American society, for he was always a conservative in the best sense of that word. The disappointment in Wright of Ronald Reagan, the governor who named him chief justice, was a measure not of Wright's failure but of Reagan's limited understanding of the law, the role of the high court, the independence of the judiciary--instruments of the nation that must be preserved from mediocrity and ideologies.

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