The state Judicial Council, the policy-making agency of the California judiciary, voted Saturday to oppose legislative proposals for sweeping changes in the way state Supreme Court nominees are confirmed into office.
The action came during the first meeting of the influential, 21-member council after the appointment of 14 new judges to the panel by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, its new chairman.
The council, by voice vote, recommended that the Legislature reject two constitutional amendments introduced after the bitter fall election campaign that resulted in the ouster of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin.
One measure, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), would require that the governor's nominees to the state Supreme Court, as well as courts of appeal, be confirmed by majority vote of the Senate. Such approval would come in addition to present requirements for confirmation by the state Judicial Appointments Commission and later by the voters.
A proposal sponsored by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) would provide that a newly elected governor select a chief justice from the seven-member high court and would limit all state Supreme Court justices to a single 12-year term.
The council's action came after a brief debate featuring a defense of his measure by Lockyer, a council member, and strong criticism of both proposals by San Diego Superior Court Judge Patricia D. Benke, a Lucas council appointee and one of the judges who had been under formal consideration for appointment to the high court by Gov. George Deukmejian.
"We just went through a very unseemly and injurious experience for our state's judiciary," said Lockyer, referring to last year's election. "We're trying to figure out a way to avoid that . . . with a new confirmation process that will provide better screening of court nominees."
But Benke urged that at least for now the council oppose changes in the confirmation system, saying: "We need to wait and see if what happened (in the last election) was an aberration." Benke opposed a one-term limit on justices, noting that members of "the very great courts" in the past had served without such limitations.
The council, with only Lockyer audibly dissenting, adopted a staff recommendation opposing the legislation because, among other reasons, legislative confirmation of judicial nominees could inject "partisan politics" into the process if the governor is of one party and the Senate controlled by the other.
In another action, the council appointed William E. Davis, a San Francisco attorney and former circuit executive of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, to become the new administrative director of the California courts. Davis, 44, was Lucas' choice to succeed Ralph J. Gampell, who retired in December after serving as director during Bird's nine-year tenure.