Governor Fires Back After a Scolding by Justice Bird

Times Staff Writer

Responding to a California Supreme Court opinion that questioned his conduct when he served as attorney general, Gov. George Deukmejian on Friday blasted Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird for "using a legal opinion to make a political statement."

The opinion, written by Bird, criticized Deukmejian's handling of a $12.25-million settlement of an antitrust suit against Levi Strauss & Co. The court, on a 5-2 vote, upheld the Deukmejian-approved plan to pay Californians up to 40 cents per pair of jeans purchased between 1972 and 1976.

Writing for the court majority, Bird argued that the settlement would mean between $2.60 and $3 to the average jeans buyer. The only significant beneficiaries, she added "were a few large claimants . . . and the attorney general (Deukmejian), who gained not only the fee award for his office, but also substantial free publicity for his then upcoming gubernatorial campaign."

On Friday, Deukmejian said that Bird in her opinion "seriously undermined her representations that the California Supreme Court is free from politics."

"The chief justice stated that the judicially approved notice was political advertising," Deukmejian said. "The facts do not support her contention, and she has reminded us all that 1986 is an election year."

Both Deukmejian and Bird must face voters this year. The governor has long been an outspoken critic of the chief justice.

A spokesman for Bird said Friday that justices by tradition do not respond to criticisms of their opinions.

However, Robert Gnaizda of Public Advocates, the public interest law firm that challenged the terms of the Levi's settlement on behalf of Consumers Union and other consumer groups, defended the court majority for responding to objections raised by consumers.

Gnaizda criticized a 1981 letter sent out by then-Atty. Gen. Deukmejian, with the approval of the San Francisco Superior Court, under Deukmejian's own signature. The letter went to 8.8 million households in the state encouraging those who had purchased Levi's jeans to apply for refunds of up to $2 per pair.

Gnaizda argues, and the court majority agreed, that the letter should not have been signed by Deukmejian at all. "There were political advantages in doing so," said Gnaizda, who contended that Deukmejian was looking ahead to his run for governor in 1982.

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