The campaign on behalf of the California Supreme Court is facing a dilemma as interest groups representing labor, the environment, women and minorities have begun spreading the message that the court is good for their causes.
These organizations are responding to a torrent of court criticism generated by groups of prosecutors, peace officers, agribusiness lobbyists and conservative politicians who argue that the court is soft on crime and biased against business.
In another kind of race, such a confrontation of opposing forces would be politics as usual. But in a judicial election, where judges can win or lose on the basis of their reputation for nonpartisanship, a unique problem is created: The justices can be hurt by friends as well as by foes.
Help from groups such as the California Labor Federation, with its 1.6 million members, could mean a lot of votes for Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and the other three justices--Joseph R. Grodin, Stanley Mosk and Cruz Reynoso--who have been targeted for defeat by conservative opponents.
The Basic Theme
But when labor leaders say, as they have, that the court has been good for unions, they run counter to the basic theme of the justices' reelection effort--that the court is an independent branch of government that serves no political interest and, as such, should not be subjected to a political litmus test.
A Bird campaign spokesman said such endorsements do not jeopardize the court's neutrality because, he argued, the court was merely following the law--not political ideology--when it acted to protect certain groups.
"The Supreme Court protects consumers, workers and the environment because the law strongly protects consumers, workers and the environment," Steven M. Glazer, communications director for Bird's reconfirmation committee, said.
Nevertheless, the campaign has put other court supporters in a quandary. Do they confine themselves, as the justices have, to rebutting the charges of the critics, or do they try to rally voters by talking about the court's rulings on behalf of workers, environmentalists, women, minorities, consumers, renters and poor people?
'A Tricky Problem'
"How do you tell people to vote for someone without saying, 'Hey, he's your kind of guy?' It's a tricky problem, and I'm not sure how we are going to resolve it," said Armando Duron, Los Angeles chapter president of the Mexican-American Bar Assn., which has been raising money for Reynoso. "We will try to tell people that it's the court and the judicial process that we are trying to protect from political interference. We'll try to weave that message into the campaign."
The predicament faced by court defenders has led some to question the value of judicial elections. What good does an election serve, they ask, if it plunges the judiciary into partisan politics?
In reply, critics argue that the justices would not be facing such a difficult election if they had not allowed their political biases to enter into their decisions.
During the last several months, the San Francisco Bar Assn. has been coordinating the efforts of court supporters around the state--publishing papers that defend the court's record, holding workshops on campaign strategy and producing a training film for people preparing to debate court opponents. Association officials acknowledge that they have not settled on one approach to the campaign.
"When we, when members of the association, go out and speak, we don't say the court helps farm workers or welfare recipients. We say the court is good for people because it abides by the law and not popular opinion or political winds," Drucilla Ramey, the association executive director, said.
But in the association's training film, speakers refer to the court as "a people's court" that has sided with tenants in disputes with landlords, strengthened the collective bargaining rights of farm workers and protected consumers against "predatory creditors."
'Kind of a Weird Box'
"It puts us in kind of a weird box," Ramey said. "One day, you are telling people to put political considerations aside when they vote on the court; then, the next day, you are saying vote for the court because it has been good to tenants or consumers or farm workers."
This kind of mixed message has been coming from a variety of court supporters during recent months.
In September, the California State Bar adopted pro-court resolutions emphasizing the judiciary's independence and urging citizens to base their votes on "the qualifications and abilities" of the justices and not on "each justice's political philosophy or affiliation."
Since September, however, other groups have come to the justices' defense, and they have been less reluctant to express their views in political terms.
Union Official's Opinion
"We are saying that the court's record on liberal issues, and not just labor, is commendable," John F. Henning, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said.
The federation has already made "significant financial contributions" to Bird's campaign, research director Tom Rankin said, and plans articles in union papers emphasizing "the protective decisions the court has made regarding all sorts of workers' rights."
The 40,000-member League of Conservation Voters is also rallying behind the court, raising money and, according to its printed campaign plan, trying to have an influence on the 1 million California voters who, polls show, have expressed a strong interest in environmental issues.
"We are trying to get across the idea that the court has been of monumental importance to the environmental movement," Lucy Blake, the league executive director, said. She said the league has already sponsored one dinner for the justices, raising about $50,000, and it hopes to raise another $150,000.
Women Lawyers Join
Marjorie Steinberg, president of the Women Lawyers' Assn. of Los Angeles, said her group, which has about 1,000 members, is focusing on the court's rulings against sex discrimination and in favor of equal employment and abortion rights.
"Mostly, our emphasis is on the court's attitude toward choice," Steinberg said in reference to the court's 1981 ruling upholding state financing of abortion programs.
Besides the Mexican-American Bar Assn., two other Latino organizations, the Mexican-American Political Assn. and the Community Services Organization, have started working for Reynoso's reconfirmation. The Community Services Organization has begun distributing handbills of Reynoso that say "CSO Barrio Pride/Man of the Year."
During a recent interview, Reynoso said he appreciates the motives of fellow Latinos who are coming to his defense.
130 Years of Struggle
"Many folks are quite disturbed by the efforts to remove me," he said, "and why shouldn't they be? It took 130 years or more after the first Constitution was drafted before there was a single Hispanic on the court, and, right away, you have people trying to get rid of him."
Reynoso, who is running his own reconfirmation campaign, also said he thought that support for the court can be expressed in a way that does not compromise the judiciary's reputation.
"If you have been favored by a ruling, that's fine. You simply point out that the ruling is a product of an independent judiciary which ought to be preserved. You tell people that if they are interested in preserving the kind of democracy that California has had, then they have an interest in maintaining an independent judiciary."
So far, the efforts of groups working for the justices have been modest compared to those working against the court.
But as they survey the opposition, many supporters of the court believe that the only way to counter the effects of the anti-court blitz is to continue building support among groups that have benefited from court rulings.
Ramey pointed to the success of grass-roots organizing in defeating this year's Proposition 41, a proposal to cut statewide welfare benefits, and said it is the kind of strategy that could win for the justices.
"I am hopeful that we can take advantage of the same tremendous grass-roots potential," he said.
Michael Wald, a Stanford University law professor and a speaker in the San Francisco Bar Assn. film, said recently that for the justices to win reconfirmation they may "regrettably" have to rely on interest-group support.
'Where the Money Is'
"Labor, environment, consumer and, ultimately, some part of the Democratic Party--that's where the money is. That's where the door-to-door organization is. It may be the only way to combat the forces arrayed against the court," he said.
For now, however, the appeal to interest groups is not the only one being made on the justices' behalf.
A number of San Francisco lawyers, who represent both labor unions and employers, have joined forces to work for Grodin's confirmation because, they say, he has been fair as a judge to both labor and management despite his background as a union lawyer.
"We may not agree with all of his decisions," Morton Orenstein, one of several management lawyers in the group, said. "But we've known him for many years and regard him as a decent and honorable person and one highly qualified to be a judge."
Spokesmen for the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, two of the largest lawyers' organizations working to reconfirm the justices, say that they have avoided talking about who the court has helped and continued to insist that the campaign's main purpose is to persuade voters of the importance of an independent judiciary.
"It's a matter of reminding people what happened to human rights during the French Revolution and in Nazi Germany when politicians were able to control the judiciary," Peter Hinton, president of the trial lawyers' group, said. But Hinton, like other lawyers, is not optimistic about a strategy that requires asking people to vote for justices whose decisions they may not agree with.
"Will it work as a campaign tactic? I don't know," he said. "I wish I had more faith in the public's ability to accept what is a highly sophisticated argument."
The San Francisco Bar's film also asks: How do you persuade people that they would be doing the right thing by voting for justices whom they don't agree with.
In the film, the speakers say they are still looking for a good answer.