Pete Wilson's withdrawal from the presidential race should give him the ideological breathing room to make the kind of Supreme Court appointment that California needs. The governor will be replacing Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, who has announced he will step down in May.
The 68-year-old Lucas, appointed in 1984, won praise for restoring civility to the state high court after its tumultuous years under Chief Justice Rose Bird, who was ousted by the voters in 1986 along with two colleagues. She was criticized by many court observers as a remote and inaccessible administrator and ultimately was removed by the voters for her liberal legal views. The atmosphere of collegiality Lucas cultivated, particularly during the first years after his elevation to chief justice in 1987, was no small accomplishment.
The chief justice also embraced well-intentioned if still uncompleted attempts to put trial courts on a stable financial and administrative footing, plus laudable efforts to identify and erase racial bias in the state's court system.
In jurisprudence, the seven-member Lucas court distanced itself from the more liberal views of the Bird era. With the exception of the death penalty rulings, it has resisted going to the extreme right.
Overall, the court's rulings are regarded as undistinguished, and Lucas' tenure has not been free of controversy. Lucas was rightly criticized in recent years for excepting free foreign travel from groups with petitions before the court. These trips prompted the Legislature last year to require judges to adhere to the same gift and travel rules that apply to other state elected officials.
Wilson's withdrawal from the presidential race and Lucas' retirement allow the governor, who had tried hard to promote himself as a law-and-order conservative, to find his footing again as moderate. The next Supreme Court justice should be an individual of first-rate intellect, a compassionate and innovative jurist. And because the court is all white, with the exception of Justice Joyce Luther Kennard, who is of Asian descent, Wilson would do well to pick a person who reflects the state's ethnically diverse population.