COLUMN ONE : Rose Bird’s Quest for Obscurity : Voted out in 1986 after a firestorm of controversy, the former chief justice of California is portrayed by some as a struggling recluse. Friends say she does not see herself as a tragic figure.
The tall, matronly woman with chin-length blond hair dropped in at an East Palo Alto poverty law clinic and asked if she could volunteer. She gave her name, but it rang no bells. Staff members assumed she was a bored homemaker and assigned her to the copying machine.
For months, the woman photocopied documents for the clinic’s busy young lawyers. It took a tip from a law school dean to alert the staff to her identity: Rose Elizabeth Bird, the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
That this historic figure--the first woman to serve on the state high court--would one day find herself doing clerical work for lawyers who did not recognize her does not surprise her friends. Nearly 10 years after her humiliating ouster from the bench, Bird remains at the fringe of the legal community and, some say, of society.
She has become a reclusive figure, fearful at times for her safety and convinced that her public vilification makes it impossible for her to represent clients. She is not even currently licensed to practice law in California.
“People lose their fight,” said her friend, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who appointed her to the court in 1977. “She’s burnt.”
Voters booted out Bird and two other justices in 1986 in an unprecedented expression of political displeasure with the state court. Conservatives, unhappy with her reversals of death sentences and rulings against corporations, portrayed Bird as a left-wing zealot who arrogantly refused to implement laws the people wanted.
Until then, confirmation votes of Supreme Court justices were a mere formality. Now the California high court appears particularly attuned to the desires of the electorate. It affirms death sentences at one of the highest rates in the nation and seems to bend over backward to uphold voter initiatives, scholars say.
Even today, Bird’s legacy remains a powerful campaign weapon for conservatives. Her name is a symbol, dragged out at election time to get votes. Almost a decade after fading from the scene, she is still, as one of her friends put it, “a political untouchable.”
Friends say Bird lives modestly, largely on a $12,000 annual state pension. (A $43,400-a-year judicial pension will not start until 1999.) The elegance she acquired as chief justice has given way to muumuus and jogging suits. Heavier now at age 59, Bird has discovered that few people recognize her. She seems glad of the anonymity.
She guards her address and her telephone number, using a post office box from time to time to protect her privacy. She will not come to the door for reporters, sometimes not even for friends.
“There is no way Rose Bird envisioned she would end up being where she is today,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, a friend.
To understand the depth of Bird’s fall, one must first realize how rapidly she rose. Born in Arizona to a working-class family, she grew up there and in New York, graduating from Long Island University. She became a lawyer when few women were entering law school, graduating with honors from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall in 1965. Santa Clara County hired her as its first female deputy public defender, and she taught a course at Stanford University that former students still rave about.
While chauffeuring Brown during his 1974 campaign for governor, Bird did not hesitate to tell him what was on her mind. He liked her frankness, her convictions, and the agility and depth of her intelligence.
‘She Kind of Withdrew’
After Brown’s election, he selected Bird to become the state’s first female Cabinet member. As Secretary of Agriculture and Services, she held a post that traditionally had gone to agribusiness and began to make enemies among conservatives. Two years later, the mercurial governor passed over liberal associate justices to appoint Bird--who had never served a day as a judge--as chief of the high court.
She shook up the staid institution. Bird sold the court Cadillac, stopped holding judges conferences at fancy resorts and insisted on writing individual opinions to distinguish her views from those of her colleagues. To some of them she seemed remote, even imperious.
Her opinions received praise from liberal quarters, but conservatives denounced her legal thinking and rulings. She voted against every death sentence that came before her--even some liberals complained that she should have couched some of her rulings in more appeasing language--and often came down on the side of criminal suspects and plaintiffs suing businesses.
Even as polls showed that Bird would lose her reconfirmation vote in 1986, she refused to resign. She changed her plain appearance: the tall, slender chief justice suddenly appeared glamorous, her face made up, her hair worn long. But she would not alter her positions for the election. After nine years on the court, she was ousted by a 2-1 margin.
“She was really badly hurt by the whole process,” said University of Santa Clara law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, also a friend. “She kind of withdrew into a shell almost. There was a time, in the year or two after the election, that she didn’t respond to calls or answer letters.”
She retreated to the Palo Alto home she shared with her mother, an attractive cream-colored cottage with a neat garden of roses and wisteria.
Visitors were unwelcome. On the front gate she put up a sign that said: “No Admittance.” On the front of the house, she posted another sign, “Beware of Dog.” The address was scratched off the front curb. She received death threats and had reason to feel trepidation, according to a friend.
Some friendships foundered. Associates found themselves cut off for wrongs they did not even know they had committed. “She has had fallings-out with many people,” said one of many friends who requested anonymity. “I think she has a very difficult time trusting people.”
Another came to dread the “very sad” conversations with Bird, “all the problems in her life, the earthquake damage to her house [from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake], no money . . . always something.”
Bird lost her mother, Anne, 86, after a bout of pneumonia in 1991. The women had been inseparable. Bird cared for her at home for as long as possible, and after putting her in convalescent care, visited her daily.
There wasn’t much work with which Bird could fill the hours. Job offers were scant. By contrast, after their rejections in the same election, Joseph Grodin returned to the faculty at Hastings College of Law, and Cruz Reynoso took up teaching at UCLA and has a private practice.
No Bay Area law school invited Bird to join their faculties: conservative alumni might have been offended, her friends say, and schools also might fear hiring someone of Bird’s uncompromising nature.
But Bird is also choosy about what she will do. She refuses any job that she believes would compromise her integrity or trade on her judicial experience, and she fears hurting a client or cause by associating herself with them or it, her friends say. Some friends are discouraged by her stubbornness.
“It would not be outrageous to say that someone who has gone through all of this might be a little depressed and might not be able to get the motivation to start anew,” Cordell said.
According to her friends, her law teaching in the Bay Area has been limited to two semesters in 1992 and 1993 at Golden Gate University School of Law. Colleagues called her “Rose” and found her informal and pleasant.
She told students to call her “Justice Bird,” brought them sweet treats and captivated them with her encyclopedic knowledge of political history, recalled former pupil Rod Fliegel.
In 1993, Bird walked into the East Palo Alto Community Law Project and applied as a volunteer. She gave her name, but did not mention her past or even that she was a lawyer.
When she was asked if she could write, she replied affirmatively. Staff members never guessed the woman they knew as “Rose” or “Mrs. Bird” had written opinions in the law books on their shelves. She seemed content doing clerical work.
After discovering her identity, the lawyers at first were mortified. They came to embrace and even revere Bird, both because she had so humbly helped them and because they shared the political views that had cost Bird her career. One staff member named her daughter Rose and, after working with the former chief justice, compared her doing clerical work to “Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles.”
A Maternal Figure
Lawyers in the office wanted her help with the law, but Bird was reluctant. She told one of them she liked doing the support work because she knew that’s what such offices tended to need most.
But Bird also was not licensed to practice law at the time because she could not afford the Bar dues, according to a knowledgeable source, and she felt that she could not work on cases without that license. She later got a State Bar ethics rule changed to allow retired justices to do volunteer legal work, said former project Director Shauna Marshall.
Bird did not want to go to public meetings because she was so private and because, she confided, she worried that her association with the project could hurt it, said project lawyer Jeanne Merino.
She became a maternal figure to the young women lawyers. She advised Merino to be more assertive in her dealings with other lawyers, to trust her judgment and refuse to be interrupted.
“You shouldn’t expect other people to look out for you,” Merino recalled Bird telling her. “You should feel comfortable looking out for yourself.”
Unlike the struggling recluse described by friends, Bird seemed at ease in the company of the young women. She was strongly opinionated and could be sarcastic and silly with Marshall. Bird often advised her to wear lipstick or more professional clothing.
“I would roll my eyes,” Marshall said, “and she would say, ‘I learned you have to play those games.’ ”
Another time, Bird took Marshall to meet Brown, who at the time was publicly condemning the North American Free Trade Agreement. Bird suggested a prank: Marshall would tell him she favored the treaty.
“That was hysterical--one of the funnier days we spent together,” Marshall said. Brown “went into this fiery tirade. Then I looked at her and we both burst out laughing. She and Jerry Brown clearly had a close relationship, almost like siblings.”
After leaving the project, Bird taught for 5 1/2 months at the University of Sydney in Australia.
“Students were over the moon about her,” said Prof. Terry Carney, who heads the law department at Sydney. “I wish I had 60 Rose Birds in the department.”
Bird did not confide much about her ouster from the court, but Carney could tell from “nuances and inflections in her voice” that she remained “scarred” and “found it difficult to put behind her.”
She lived frugally, and her colleagues figured she had financial problems.
During her stay, one of the dogs she had left in the care of others in California died. She was distraught but shared her grief only with Carney’s secretary, he said.
“She was extremely attached to it,” Carney said. “I didn’t appreciate quite how upset she was.”
After returning to California, Bird agreed to complete a constitutional law textbook that University of Santa Clara professor Russell W. Galloway Jr. was writing when he died. It is soon to be published under both names.
A Tragic Figure to Some
She passes much of her time in her garden and with her dogs, friends say. She also avidly follows current events: She got so caught up in the O.J. Simpson trial that she called members of the defense team to comment on their strategy. She also likes talking politics with friends, and she is said to be an invaluable source of tips on the best movies to see.
Some of her friends, frustrated that Bird has not established a strong second career, see her as a tragic figure. But she does not perceive herself that way, nor do all her friends. Her wants are modest. She reads to the blind, feeds the hungry and seems accustomed to her quiet new life, say some friends.
She is a vegetarian and believes in the curative power of vitamins. She occasionally sends friends notes, poetry she has written or cookies she has baked.
“She seems reasonably well-adjusted and relaxed,” said U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who dines or goes to the movies with Bird a few times a year. “Happy may be a little excessive, but she seems in good spirits.”
Bird’s only contact with the court she once headed is an occasional lunch with Justice Joyce L. Kennard, a moderate who was touched several years ago when Bird sent a warm note congratulating her on her appointment to the high court.
A mutual acquaintance said the relationship between the women is supposed to be secret lest it taint Kennard politically. But Kennard acknowledged the association and complimented Bird.
“In my personal dealings with her, I found her to be most gracious and warm and witty,” Kennard said.
After years of secluding herself from the public, the elusive Bird may be getting close to venturing out, a few friends believe. The last time she was interviewed was in 1989, when she described a life of gardening and meditation.
“She is a private person who may be recognizing that there are things she can do and still maintain her privacy,” said a friend, Bay Area lawyer Raj Chabra.
Bird recently wrote an opinion piece for The Times about the O.J. Simpson verdicts, the first time she had spoken out publicly on an issue in years. The Times had approached Bird through an intermediary, and she relied on Chabra to handle interactions with its Opinion page.
Her piece said that the prosecution had failed to prove Simpson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. She blamed the media for the anger toward the verdicts, accusing them of distorting what happened in the courtroom. Chabra said he is hopeful Bird that will write more often for publication.
She also is discussing launching a legal project for the poor with Brown, a Brown staff member said. But the aide said the details must be worked out.
Brown, interviewed in the renovated Oakland warehouse where he lives and works, was asked if he felt partly responsible for Bird’s bruising defeat and current life. Some of her friends say she still would have been on the court had Brown appointed her an associate justice rather than the chief.
A sad look came into his eyes, and he avoided the question. “I appointed her,” Brown said. But Bird, he said, had wanted to be chief.
Bird responded to two letters requesting an interview by issuing a written, one-paragraph statement through Chabra:
“I respectfully decline to give an interview because I would prefer the media to focus on substantive issues, not gossip about my private life. The present-day emphasis on personality denigrates the public discourse.”
The spotlight, she said, should be on the current members of the state Supreme Court, the administration of courts and the policy-making council for the courts. “Those are the individuals and institutions that have real power and affect people’s lives, not someone who has been out of office for nine years,” Bird concluded.
At her home one recent afternoon, the neat garden she tends with such care was awash in sunlight, the flowers in bloom. The front gate with the “No Admittance” sign was closed. No sound came from inside the house.
An imposing woman with two dogs was walking down the street toward Bird’s house, where the number on the curb is still scratched off. She was asked to confirm the address.
At first glance, this woman didn’t look much like the former chief justice. This Rose Bird was heavier and wore a loose, light blue jogging suit. Her hair was pinned to her head. Her face was full, lined and grim. She did not wait for a second question.
“I don’t know the addresses,” she snapped in a regal voice. She turned on her heel, headed toward the end of the cul-de-sac and vanished.
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Rose Bird was the first woman on the California Supreme Court and its chief justice for nine years. Since being turned out by voters over her blockage of death sentences and for other unpopular rulings, she has lived quietly in Palo Alto, working little in the legal field.
* 1936: Rose Elizabeth Bird born Nov. 2 in Tucson, Ariz.
* 1965: Graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, recipient Third Year Honors Competition Award for Legal Writing and Oral Advocacy
* 1966: Admitted to California Bar
* 1966-1974: Deputy public defender, senior trial deputy and chief of appellate division, Santa Clara County public defender’s office
* 1975: Became first woman cabinet member in California when Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. appointed her secretary of Agriculture and Services Agency
* 1977: Appointed chief justice of the California Supreme Court, and first woman on the court
* 1977-1978: President, Hastings College of the Law Board of Directors
* 1986: Defeated by voters 2 to 1 for reconfirmation to California Supreme Court
SIGNIFICANT RULINGS AS CHIEF JUSTICE
* Dissented when the court upheld Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax initiative.
* Decisions strengthening tenant rights, including one that said a landlord cannot evict tenants in retaliation for exercising their civil rights.
* A decision that barred special “ladies night” discounts at nightclubs, holding that sex-based price reductions violated state civil rights laws.
* Dissented when the court upheld a death sentence for Stevie Lamar Fields in the robbery, beating and fatal shooting of a USC student librarian. Bird said Fields was denied a fair trial because people who opposed capital punishment were excluded from his jury.
Source: Times files