Gov. George Deukmejian's nomination of Appellate Justice Marvin R. Baxter, his former aide, to the state Supreme Court is drawing mixed reaction--with some critics expressing dismay over the specter of "cronyism" on the court.
Although there is little chance Baxter will be denied confirmation, the governor's selection of a jurist with less than two years on the bench is disturbing some lawyers, academics and political activists.
Baxter's nomination will go before the state Judicial Appointments Commission on Aug. 27 and, if approved, will be on the fall ballot. If confirmed, the 50-year-old Fresno jurist would succeed Justice David N. Eagleson, who is retiring in January.
The seven-member high court then would include three jurists with close personal ties to Deukmejian--Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, his former law partner; Justice Armand Arabian, an early political supporter and longtime friend, and Baxter, the governor's former appointments secretary and, like Arabian, also of Armenian heritage.
The governor and other supporters can point to Baxter's unblemished 23-year career in law and public service and the broad support--including endorsements from two state Supreme Court justices--when Deukmejian named him to the state Court of Appeal in the fall of 1988.
"I think he is very able and hard-working and will be an excellent addition to the court," said Marjorie L. Carter, president of the California Women Lawyers and recent appointee to the Orange County Municipal Court. "It's to be expected that a governor will pick people he knows well. That's just a fact of political life."
But critics note that Deukmejian's seven previous high-court appointees generally had spent much more time on the bench--although one, Justice Joyce L. Kennard, had only been a judge for three years. And some wonder if the Republican governor--who led the successful attack against former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other liberal jurists in the fall 1986 election--has gone overboard in remaking the court in his own image.
Baxter's nomination "smacks a little bit of cronyism," said UC Berkeley law professor Preble Stolz, a close observer and author of a book on the high court. "This was not an inspired appointment."
John C. Gamboa, executive director of the Latino Issues Forum, pointed to the absence of a Latino justice on the court after the defeat of Justice Cruz Reynoso in 1986 and the retirement of Deukmejian-appointee John A. Arguelles last year.
"I'm very disappointed and angry," Gamboa said. "Cronyism seems to be muscling out any chance for minorities to get on the court. We now have two Armenians for a small Armenian population--but zero Hispanics for 25% of the state."
Patience Milrod, one of a group of Fresno women lawyers who opposed Baxter's nomination to the Court of Appeal, also faults the nomination. "The governor is providing for his friends and associates before he departs," said Milrod. "It's kind of demoralizing for people to be put on the court, not because of their integrity and knowledge, but because they were good servants to the politicians in charge."
Even some supporters acknowledge uneasiness with the nomination. Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a public-interest firm supporting law enforcement, says the governor has every right to appoint someone he knows and trusts and calls Baxter a "good, solid" selection.
"But when you put on too many people with political experience--rather than those who are grounded in legal scholarship--you tend to see more political decisions," Rushford said.
UC Davis law professor John B. Oakley, without criticizing Baxter or the nomination, believes the governor would not have risked offering an aide with relatively little judicial experience had the nomination been subject to legislative approval, as under the federal system.
The requirement of legislative review forces a chief executive to choose a nominee from a broader circle of candidates, Oakley said. "It's healthy for a (people) governed by a constitution and judges with the power of judicial review to have a court that is representative in a very broad sense."
While judicial experience is valued, Stolz and other legal experts point out that it is by no means a prerequisite to success on a higher court. Two of California's most esteemed chief justices--Phil S. Gibson and Roger J. Traynor--went directly to the state high court without previous service on the bench.
John H. Findley, litigation director of the Pacific Legal Foundation, believes Baxter, as a newcomer to the judiciary, could bring some welcome diversity to the high court. "It might be a good idea to have someone with a different viewpoint--someone who is not a professional jurist, as such," he said.
Court observers agree Baxter's service in the Deukmejian Administration provided a unique opportunity to examine and compare the records of a wide variety of judicial aspirants. As appointments secretary, he served as a sort of "judge of judges," assisting the governor in the selection of more than 600 judges from 1983 to 1988.
When Deukmejian named Baxter to the appeal court, opposition arose from some members of the Fresno County Women Lawyers group over the Administration's failure to appoint any women to local judicial posts.
Overall, at the time, 103 of the 650 administration judgeships had gone to women--a percentage about the same as under Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown. And, according to the Administration, the percentage of women applicants who were appointed was about the same as the rate for male applicants.
The state Judicial Appointments Commission, made up of Lucas, state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Presiding Justice Donald R. Franson of the Court of Appeal in Fresno, unanimously approved Baxter's nomination in the wake of broad support from the state's legal community.
Baxter's nomination was endorsed by Supreme Court Justices Arguelles and Edward A. Panelli and a host of appeals court justices, including Lester W. Roth, who as the state's senior presiding justice will sit on the appointments commission when it reviews Baxter's nomination to the state high court.
Other backers included Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, Janice Kamenir-Reznik of the California Women Lawyers, Monica M. Jimenez of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. and Irwin S. Evans of the California Assn. of Black Lawyers.
Santa Cruz County Dist. Atty. Arthur Danner, then president of the California District Attorneys Assn., supported Baxter's nomination to the appeals court and now backs him for the high-court post as well.
"He's well-respected and even-handed," Danner said. "While he has not been on the appeal court a very long time, previous to that (as appointments secretary) he had been in the position where he had to make the same kind of judgments and evaluations that a judge makes. That can prove important experience as well."