Calls Detractors ‘Bully Boys’ : Bird Says She Won’t ‘Turn Tail and Run’

Times Staff Writer

California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird portrayed herself Friday in an interview as a judge who is sensitive to individual rights and said she has no intent to “turn tail and run” in the face of a growing attack against her in her 1986 bid for a 12-year term.

Bird also said she would “not bend” under the barrage of criticism from her detractors, whom she characterized as “bully boys” and the “progeny” of U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, a former Alameda County prosecutor.

Asked by what standard voters should judge her performance next November, Bird replied: “The standard is: Are you a hard worker? Are you competent? Are you honest? Are you trying your best to do a good job?”

Grants Interviews


Bird, moving to get her message out like never before, has been criticized for failing to give interviews to the press. But on Friday, she granted hourlong interviews in separate sessions to reporters from eight different California news organizations.

While saying that the sessions were not “campaign interviews,” she spoke at length about the attacks against her, the California court and the courts nationwide.

Bird at times became animated, and even emotional, particularly when she spoke of the role of judges in deciding death-penalty cases.

She also suggested that the attacks on her are motivated at least partly by sexism. And she added that an Asian should be appointed to the high court.


The 49-year-old chief justice said her personal views on the death penalty and other issues are irrelevant, and that it is inevitable that executions will take place in California. But she avoided saying specifically whether she will vote to affirm a death sentence.

In the interview, Bird repeatedly said the attacks against her are the work of the right wing, including “the progeny” of “Eddie” Meese.

“The last 8 1/2 years, the money and the focus has been from the right wing. I think there is no mistake about that. There may be some hanger-ons to the right wing. . . . (who) would have to speak to that issue. . . .

“I don’t say it is black and white. I say just look at the facts. The facts are that the right wing has been the vehicle for the attack on the court. It has been the money-making process and the money-collecting process.”


Bird insisted that the court has not lost any of its credibility with the public--despite criticism from Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, prosecutors, crime victims and others.

“This court is an incredible institution, taking the beating we have over and over again. . . . It is incredible what this court has been able to withstand,” Bird said.

She blamed part of the court’s problem on what she called a lack of leadership in the other branches of government.

“We have two branches of government that are somewhat in stagnation,” she said. “We don’t have the kind of leadership we need, where we have leaders who will make tough decisions, so everything is kind of muddled and is all thrown into the court system to resolve.”


‘Very Tough Issues’

She continued: “We can’t resolve all these other issues within the society. Somewhere along the line, the legislative and executive branches have to begin to grapple with very tough issues.”

At another point, she suggested that the process is taking its toll: “In the process of sending too many of those very tough issues into the courts, you overburden them and you stretch that institution and this institution beyond its limits.”

Asked about her judicial philosophy, the chief justice said: “I don’t see myself as a little mini-legislature.” She added: “I don’t think in the long run that ideology plays a very great role in it.”


Yet she went on to describe two conflicting philosophies of supreme courts, and placed herself in one that generally is described as liberal or activist:

“Some people tend to view our court as simple a court of precedent. So that if a case comes before us in which we all agree that there is an inequity and an injustice has been done, unless it has some precedential value, a person who holds that view would say we deny a hearing and let it go--even though that person is injured and that wrong will not be righted.”

‘Should Right Wrong’

By contrast, her view is that “we are a court of last resort and that part of our role is to ensure that when injustice is done that if it is at all possible for the court to do it . . . that we should right that wrong.”


Bird has described herself as “liberal progressive.” That means, she said, that she is “sensitive to an individual’s rights . . . cares about a tolerant society . . . cares about the rule of law and . . . cares about a society that is sensitive to its people and the environment in which they live and work.”

She focused much of her remarks Friday on Meese, who has recently criticized rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“He is attempting to push them around because they do not vote in a prescribed manner in a way in which he wants,” Bird said, adding that in California, “his progeny” seek to unseat justices on a “progressive court . . . because we will not bend to their bullying.”

“We are perceived as a progressive court. Members on the U.S. Supreme Court are perceived as conservative. My point is that it makes no difference what the perception is. These bully boys are interested in one thing and one thing only. If you don’t vote down the line the way they want, out you go.”


‘Anything Is Fair Game’

In the campaign, she said, “anything is fair game--my hairdo, the way I walk, the way I dress.” But she added that she doubts that “the best way to do things’ is to base votes on a justice’s opinions.

“There are real dangers if you vote on people based on whether you like the way they vote. . . .

“You don’t want people in lock-step up here. . . . It is a beautiful thing that a little Hispanic can look up here and see Cruz Reynoso in the highest judicial office in the state. That is a beautiful thing. Why do we have to have Eddie Meeses all over here? He doesn’t have a corner on the truth.”


She scoffed at suggestions that she resign, thus removing what many see as the campaign’s lightening rod, and helping ensure that other liberal justices on the November, 1986, ballot retain their seats.

“You know what they will do if you turn tail and run? They will beat up everyone else until they get every single seat they want.”

‘Believe in Institution’

She said that although many of her campaign donors are trial lawyers and criminal defense lawyers, they contribute to her campaign not because they believe she will vote for them but because “they believe in the institution.”


“I give the one promise, and this goes to everybody: If you ever have a case that comes before this court and the law is not with you, I will vote against you.”

She said the appointees of Gov. Deukmejian, a strident Bird foe, do not fit into that category of right-wing judges who vote in lock-step.

“Each governor has a right to put on the judiciary who they would like,” Bird said. “We are talking about removing sitting judges from office not because they are incompetent, but because they don’t vote in a particular way that a particular individual or politician wants them to vote.”

Bird criticized the press, a common theme of hers, for listing the number of death penalty cases reversed by the California court--37 of 40 it has decided since capital punishment was reinstated eight years ago. She called it a “grisly body count.”


‘Alive and Well’

“It distorts what is actually going on. . . . If you read the press, you would think that the death penalty no longer was in effect here in California. And, in fact, it is alive and well,” Bird said.

She repeated statements made in earlier interviews that there will be executions but did not say whether she would vote to confirm, saying merely that the court, or “we” will vote to affirm death sentences.

“If the law requires that we follow the Constitution and the laws of the state, and those require that there be an affirmance, there will be an affirmance.


“I took an oath of office and I follow my oath of office.”

You will affirm a case? she was asked.

“What I am saying is that I follow in every single area of the law what I believe the law requires me to do and my oath of office requires me to do. I don’t substitute my judgment, whatever that is in that area, because I have been amused to read so much in the press about what my views are. I rather believe that very few people have any idea what my views are.”

She said her personal views on capital punishment are “irrelevant.”