Judicial Freedom Under Fire

The bitter partisan campaign in 1986 that unseated Rose Bird and two other justices on the California Supreme Court cast a very long shadow. As members of the current court are poised to rule on some controversial cases, they face a threat to their independence no less divisive and destructive than that of a dozen years ago.

Four of the seven justices are up for confirmation by voters in November. Two of them--Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justice Ming W. Chin--are targeted for defeat in the first organized campaign against Supreme Court justices since Bird lost her seat.

Last summer George authored a decision striking down a state law that required girls under 18 to obtain parental permission for abortions. Chin supported that decision, which reversed an earlier ruling by the court in favor of a never-enforced law. The two other justices up for confirmation, Stanley Mosk and Janice Rogers Brown, are not targeted because they voted in favor of giving parents a say.

What's at issue here, as it was with Bird, is judicial independence. You don't have to like a decision to support the principle that judges should not be ousted because they dared to make a ruling that is not universally supported.

In last year's ruling, George concluded that the 1987 parental consent law violated the privacy rights guaranteed by the state Constitution. This enraged anti-abortion activists who, led by the California ProLife Council and some in the Legislature, immediately began plotting to unseat him and Chin.

Never mind that George and Chin are both former prosecutors and conservative on many legal issues. Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Chin in 1996 and elevated George to chief justice the same year.

Those gunning for the two justices turned up the heat at last month's state Republican convention. Though delegates defeated a move to explicitly oppose retention of George and Chin, they created a committee to make evaluations and recommend endorsements in Court of Appeal and Supreme Court elections in which justices stand for retention unopposed. This despite the fact that California judicial races have historically been nonpartisan.

After their nominations are confirmed, Supreme Court and appellate justices must appear on the ballot at the next gubernatorial election. After that, they stand for retention every 12 years.

Sen. Raymond N. Haynes (R-Riverside) will head the GOP committee. Although Haynes barely disguises his opposition to George and Chin, he says he's in no rush to make recommendations. The candidates will get a "fair hearing," Haynes promises. He'll even wait for the court's rulings in two controversial cases now before it, concerning whether the Boy Scouts can bar gays and whether they can bar youths who are atheists. In fact, according to state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder, the rulings in these cases "will be a very important factor in the [endorsement] decision." Very important, indeed.

This sort of intimidation is an outrageous threat to judicial independence, one that should trouble every Californian, no matter what his or her political bent.

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