Bird Defends Court, Takes a Slap at Crime

Times Staff Writer

Contradicting charges by her law-and-order critics, Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird sounded nearly as tough on criminals as are the conservative detractors of the Supreme Court when she told the State Bar convention Sunday that “crime is not welcome” in California.

In her eighth State of the Judiciary message, Bird pointed to statistics showing that appellate courts affirm 90% of all criminal appeals, a number often cited by her campaign aides.

“The message is clear. Crime is not welcome in California, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply ignoring the facts,” she said in a response to critics who maintain that the high court is soft on crime.

No Political Message

Afterward, a Byrd aide cautioned against reading a political message into her comments, and thus underscored a recurrent theme both of Bird’s campaign to win reelection in the November, 1986, election, and of the weekend convention that focused on the election 14 months off.

The theme is that voters should not turn out justices simply because they disagree with the court’s rulings. To vote in that manner would be to threaten the independence of the judiciary, the argument goes, and a judge should only be ousted for incompetence or corruption.


“The chief justice will not place (her) reliance on professional politicians,” Anthony Murray, a Los Angeles lawyer and chair of her campaign committee, told 100 lawyers at a breakfast Sunday. “The whole point is that this is a nonpolitical office.”

Murray added, however, that the “chief justice has gone up and down the state” to raise money--though she is not campaigning full time--and has a “great ability to attract people and attract funds.”

“The chief justice is able and willing to appear and speak in your area,” he said.

Murray and backers of Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, who also face opposition campaigns, urged the lawyers to get involved by donating money, or writing or speaking out for the justices’ reelection.

Though for the most part the weekend forum was friendly for all of the justices, dissent remained. Michael Brady, president of the San Mateo Bar Assn., maintained that voters have a right to vote based on their views of court decisions. The 1986 election, Brady said, is “no rubber stamp” for Bird and her colleagues.

Bird’s supporters worked throughout the weekend to ensure that the 5,000 lawyers attending the convention presented as unified a front as possible on her behalf. They were particularly active seeking to keep dissension at a minimum today when the Bar’s conference of delegates debates a resolution on the 1986 election.

State law precludes the Bar, an arm of state government, from endorsing candidates. But Bird’s backers hoped the delegates would pass a resolution adopting the basic theme of her campaign.

The effort was aimed at fashioning language that “would be strongly supportive of the court but (would have) the broadest base,” said Dennis Riordan, a San Francisco lawyer and a strong supporter of Bird. By Sunday, most differences evidently had been resolved.

The resolution endorses judicial independence without criticizing court opponents. Nor does it call for the State Bar to play a role in the campaign. The measure calls on voters to “base their votes on the qualifications and abilities of the justices . . . without regard to such justices’ votes on particular issues or cases.”

The resolution also says justices should not be penalized if, in following the law, they protect “the rights of the unpopular, even the hated elements, in our society.”

Meanwhile, the Bar remains in a precarious political position. The state Legislature recessed without passing a bill authorizing the Bar to collect dues, leaving it without authority to take in money from the state’s 87,000 lawyers after the end of the year. The Bar charges a maximum $180 a year in individual dues, money that accounts for $18 million of its $25 million budget.

Legislation on Dues

Some lawyers believe that a strong statement supporting the Bird court could result in even further erosion of support when the lawmakers reconvene in January, and when the Bar must win urgency legislation in order to begin collecting dues. Urgency legislation requires a two-thirds vote and can be blocked by Republicans, who led the effort to halt the original dues bill and who are opposing Bird’s retention.

In her address to the lawyers, Bird pointed to the rising prison population and said prison sentences of “as long as 200 years (are) appearing with some regularity.” Noting that state prisons are burgeoning, holding almost twice their intended capacity, the chief justice called for support of efforts by the Legislature and governor to alleviate prison overcrowding and said steps taken so far are “only a beginning.”

“This is a most serious problem with potentially tragic consequences,” she said.

Bird also called for a speedier civil court system and a reduction of the cost of litigation. She renewed her plea that Gov. George Deukmejian sign a bill placing the responsibility for financing trial courts on the state and removing it from the counties. The governor vetoed similar legislation last year.

Springsteen Line

Invoking rock ‘n’ roll star Bruce Springsteen’s line--"there are a lot of people feeling like the America they believe in sailed away"--Bird decried figures showing that one in five children in this country lives below the poverty line and that the high school dropout rate has doubled in this state since 1970.

She urged lawyers to “do something about this increasingly troubling situation,” adding, “If the law is to be more than just your job, you must also have some feeling for the larger task that you’re about, for the system of justice of which you are a part.

“That’s right, a system of justice. That is what the law is all about in the first place--justice and the creation of and preservation of a just society.”