For Rose Elizabeth Bird, campaign politics never mixes comfortably with the California Supreme Court. And that was plainly evident as the chief justice plunged publicly into her 1986 reelection campaign with a lively but reluctant San Francisco fund-raiser--the first of what will have to be many if she is to keep her office.
"I'd like to say how happy I am to be here tonight. But I'm not," said actor and keynote speaker Warren Beatty, capturing the mood of the crowd here Tuesday. "I don't think I should have to be here tonight. I don't think any of us should have to be here, and I particularly don't think that a Supreme Court justice should have to attend a political fund-raising dinner!"
But there they were, about 1,100 strong at $200 apiece, mostly lawyers, jammed into the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel for a political event if there ever was one, with patriotic music, a straw hat band, bumper stickers, banners and campaign buttons with the slogan, "A Rose for judicial independence."
In brief remarks, Bird described her reelection campaign as if it were a courtroom trial and the voters were the jury.
Alluding to the key instruction to jurors in any trial, she noted they should not "make up their minds until all the facts are in. And I have no fears whatsoever about their verdict."
The dinner attracted interest as much for who didn't attend as for who did.
San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who was sworn into office by Bird and listed as honorary chair of the dinner, declined an invitation to speak or appear. Former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who appointed Bird to the court, did not attend, although several figures from his Administration were on hand. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), who was across the street at another hotel, didn't walk over. The four other judges who stand for election with Bird in November, 1986, were not present, with three of them away on vacation. Justice Allen E. Broussard, who is not up for election, attended.
Overall, few public officials appeared willing to align themselves with the controversial Bird, who is under attack by law enforcement elements and conservative politicians for her liberal legal views. At the dinner there were but one state legislator, Sen. Nick Petris (D-Oakland); two local supervisors, Louise Renne and Nancy Walker; one district attorney, San Francisco's Arlo Smith; and one former congressman, Pete McCloskey Jr. of Palo Alto.
Beatty delivered a stem-winder of an address on the theme of judicial independence.
"I believe that a justice should never be forced into a political campaign unless that justice is thought to be lazy, crazy or corrupt, never because some of the voters disagree with that judge's views--not even if the majority of the voters disagree with that judge's views," Beatty said.
The actor and film director met Bird for the first time only minutes before the dinner. His speech, written largely by Bob Shrum, former speech writer for U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and business partner of Bird's pollster, Pat Caddell, was the most impassioned and complete account so far of how the chief justice's campaign views the forthcoming election. Here is a sampling from the speech:
- "The job of a justice is to do justice, not to be popular."
- "Those who are demanding, 'Defeat Rose Bird,' are the direct descendants of Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and the far right that in the 1950s demanded the impeachment of (U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) Earl Warren. . . . Where we see constitutional rights they see only demons."
- "The courts have to hear and heed the claims of the people who speak in different accents and who plead in fainter voices--those people who so often are unpopular."
- "If we let the far right prevail here in California next year, they are going to push to apply a political and ideological litmus test to judges all over the country. Their dream is freedom's nightmare."
For her part, Bird, who is often characterized as a cold, distant figure, presented a wittier and more personable face.
As she took the podium after Beatty, she broke up the crowd by gazing at the actor and remarking, "When I see how kind Mother Nature was to put put such a fine mind on such a fine body. . . . "
Then she quickly and self-consciously added, "I hope you'll forgive me, Mr. Beatty, for that sexist comment."
For all the obvious political trappings of a dinner that organizers said would net about $195,000, counting donations from people who did not attend, Bird and her strategists continued to resist--and resist vigorously--any implication that she is an ordinary politician seeking high office.
"She is in a political contest but she cannot be political," said Anthony Murray, a lawyer and occasional spokesman for the chief justice. "Judges cannot campaign the way other politicians do. They have a crippling disability--they cannot defend their records."
Causing Some Turmoil
There were strong indications that this nonpolitical judicial politics was causing turmoil inside the Bird campaign organization.
Bill Zimmerman and associate Linda Feldman, hired earlier to manage and organize the campaign, this week were ordered not to speak to the press, a development that further confused the issue of who is in charge of what in the reelection effort.
It appeared as though Zimmerman, a specialist in producing political broadcast commercials and such things as Jane Fonda's exercise videotapes, had spoken out in political terms that Bird and others around her found too blunt and not in keeping with the chief justice's preference for a loftier tone. What Zimmerman had done was describe to a magazine interviewer how Bird could benefit because her opponents were divided into rival camps.
Murray denied that muzzling of the Zimmerman organization was related to the interview and said Zimmerman would remain on the campaign to produce commercials and that Feldman would raise money. Meanwhile, a search was under way for a campaign press secretary.
Murray and two others involved with the Bird reelection acknowledged growing complaints from supporters about the slow pace of building a campaign organization, notwithstanding the successful fund-raiser.
"No question that a great many people are anxious to get into the field," Murray said. "We have to coordinate . . . it takes time."