The confirmation election of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird is becoming a personal battle between Bird and Gov. George Deukmejian as the two intensify attacks on each other during the final month of the fall campaign.
For the last two weeks, Bird has been working strenuously to make Deukmejian and his alleged court-packing plan the focal point of a campaign that, until recently, has been fixated on Bird's unbroken record of anti-death penalty opinions.
If nothing else, Bird has temporarily turned the tables on the governor who, for weeks, has made the chief justice a primary target of his campaign for reelection against Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
"We need the death penalty. We don't need Rose Bird," Deukmejian says to applause in almost every campaign speech. But on Friday, as he campaigned in Los Angeles, the Republican governor was repeatedly questioned by reporters about Bird's latest charges and denied that he has a "quota" of votes that a Supreme Court justice must cast in favor of the death penalty in order to win his support.
Bird contended Thursday that Deukmejian is trying to turn a "house of justice"--the Supreme Court--into "a house of death" as part of a scheme to establish a national political reputation. She said he wants to be vice president, a contention the governor denied.
"If there is a house of death, it is the homes where these murders have occurred," said Deukmejian, noting that California has witnessed more than 24,000 murders without a single execution.
Bird said this week that Deukmejian has a history of opposing judges who do not measure up to a political litmus test that he has been administering in one form or another since 1981.
That year, Deukmejian asked four prospective judges to give their opinions of 15 Supreme Court decisions, including some death penalty reversals, with which he had disagreed. He was then attorney general and a member of the Judicial Appointments Commission that is required to approve all appellate court nominations.
The four judicial nominees, all nominated by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a Democrat, refused to answer Deukmejian's queries, and he voted against three of them. All four judges were appointed, however, because the majority of the three-member commission, which included Bird, approved them.
The four judges were Supreme Court Justice Allen E. Broussard, former Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus, Court of Appeal Justice Elwood Lui and former Court of Appeal Justice Vincent S. Dalsimer. Deukmejian voted only for Kaus.
At the time, Bird was sharply critical of Deukmejian for trying, as she put it, to ensure that judges shared his "political or judicial" philosophy. Now, she says he is still trying to impose his political will on the judiciary.
As evidence, Bird cites Deukmejian's recent decision to oppose the reelection of Supreme Court Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso because they have not often voted to uphold death penalties. Deukmejian had supported Grodin's 1982 appointment to the court while opposing Reynoso's the same year.
According to his campaign manager, Reynoso, before his 1982 appointment to the court, also received a letter from Deukmejian asking for his views on a number of cases.
"Reynoso responded, based on his reading of two U.S. Supreme Court opinions, that it would be unethical for him to talk about specific cases," said Neil Rincover, the justice's campaign manager.
Deukmejian spokesman Kevin Brett said the governor had only been trying to "to examine the analytical skills, reasoning abilities, qualifications and concern for public protection by prospective nominees."
Speaking to reporters, Deukmejian denied Bird's charge that he has established a death penalty quota that allows him to support Justice Stanley Mosk, who has voted 17 times to impose the death penalty, while Grodin has voted to affirm the death penalty in five cases. The governor noted that Mosk has long opposed capital punishment but in recent years has voted more than a third of the time to uphold death sentences.
"I'm not looking for any quota," Deukmejian said. "What I am looking for are individuals who set aside their own personal view and in fact follow the law."
Deukmejian dismissed the charge that he is exploiting the death penalty issue to propel himself into national politics.
"Well, that's ridiculous," he said. "I have been involved with the death penalty issue throughout my entire 24 years in public life, starting when I was an assemblyman, going on as a senator and attorney general and now as governor."
Deukmejian also denied that he is trying to control the court.
"I am a private citizen just like everyone else. I have a right to vote in this election. I think it's important that somebody who is in my postion tell the people how he intends to vote."