Judge Appears to Follow Own Conservative Path

Times Staff Writer

During her college days, Janice Rogers Brown roamed campus as a single mother with her young son in tow, her hair in what some remembered as “the biggest ‘fro there was” and her views so leftist that she later described them as almost Maoist.

Today, the California Supreme Court justice is President Bush’s pick for a federal court that is considered a launching pad for the U.S. Supreme Court. Her conservative political views have so offended civil rights groups and Democrats that her nomination helped provoke an ugly confrontation in the Senate.

In her personal life, the 56-year-old Brown is private and soft-spoken, the least likely of the California justices to give media interviews.


But her court decisions and political views repeatedly have thrust her into the limelight, making her a target when Bush nominated her for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Senate opened debate on her nomination Monday, and is expected to vote to confirm her this week.

Brown, who has declined to be interviewed since her federal nomination, frequently is likened to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in her legal views and life story. They are both African American, politically conservative and from the South. But there are differences.

Whereas Thomas has been said to follow the lead of Justice Antonin Scalia, Brown appears to follow no one.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson named Brown, his onetime legal affairs secretary, to the court even though a state bar committee had twice rated her unqualified. The panel objected to Brown because, it said, she inserted her personal political views into court rulings and lacked judicial experience.

She had been a member of the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento for less than two years before moving to the state’s highest court. Once there, Brown bruised the feelings of other justices by penning blistering dissents that belittled her more senior colleagues in ways they felt were personal.

In one decision, Brown defended electric “stun belts” for unruly criminal defendants in courtrooms. She zinged the majority ruling for restricting the jolt-releasing belts on the basis of research she said was so embarrassing that even a high school student would be expected to do better.

Despite a string of such withering dissents, legal scholars who closely follow the court eventually decided the state bar had been wrong about Brown. They praised her for a strong intellect, a lively writing style, independence and an impressive work ethic. Brown has been one of the top producers of opinions on the state high court.

She also has been less predictably conservative than expected. She occasionally rules for criminal defendants and chastises police for making what she views as illegal searches.

In one case, Brown objected to a ruling that permitted police to search bicyclists without identification. She said she did not know the race of the defendant in the case but suspected he was stopped because he did not look like he belonged in the neighborhood.

“That is the problem,” she wrote. “And it matters.” The cyclist was later identified as an African American.

Although much has been made of Brown’s roots as an Alabama sharecropper’s daughter, her father spent a career in the Air Force. Brown and her younger sister moved around the country to various Air Force bases before settling in Sacramento. Her mother worked as a nurse.

During Brown’s early years in the segregated South, her family refused to go to a restaurant or theater that required separate entrances for African Americans.

“Her grandmother would not let her sit in the colored section,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patricia C. Esgro, a friend of Brown, once recalled.

Brown graduated from Cal State Sacramento and received her law degree from UCLA, putting herself through school working as a telephone operator. She married an administrator for the Department of Corrections, prosecuted cases for the state attorney general, and worked in a private law firm before joining Wilson’s staff.

Alan Brown, her husband, died in 1988, and she is now married to Dewey Parker, a jazz musician. They live in a gated community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where wild turkeys stroll residential streets.

“I am a country girl,” Brown has said. “I always really wanted to be in the country.”

Of her change from leftist to conservative, Brown has said that she never fully embraced the liberal “party line,” and in college took courses in conservative tradition.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘If you aren’t a liberal before you’re 30 you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative before you’re 40 you have no brain,’ ” Brown told a legal newspaper in 1991. “That saying applies to me.”

Brown told the Los Angeles Times several years ago that her political views were separate from her court decisions.

“The fact that I am politically conservative shouldn’t have anything to do with the result in a case,” she said. “I don’t start a case with a predisposition.”

But on issues other than criminal justice, Brown can generally be counted on to take a conservative side.

She angered some liberals with her first big case on the state high court. In a dissent, she supported requiring minors to obtain parental consent for an abortion. In another case, she voted against extending legal protections for women and minorities to victims of discrimination based on age.

Her most controversial majority decision came in a case in which the court rejected government outreach programs to recruit minorities and women. Brown praised Proposition 209, the voter-approved measure that prohibited racial or gender preferences in the state’s government and universities, for promoting equal opportunity for all.

Two justices who agreed with the decision refused to sign it, complaining that Brown had been “less than evenhanded” in disparaging all affirmative action programs.

In other cases, Brown has been critical of government regulation of private property.

In one dissent, she equated a San Francisco law with “thievery” for requiring landlords to pay a fee to convert residential hotels to tourist rooms.

She also filed the sole dissent in two gun cases that permitted counties to ban guns and gun sales on fairgrounds and other county property.

“The small and superficially benign acts of democratic government can erode personal freedom just as surely, and to the same end, as the large and malignant acts of a tyrant or dictator,” she wrote.

But it’s Brown’s fiery speeches to conservative groups, not her court decisions, that have inspired the most vehement opposition to her nomination.

Oakland appellate lawyer Jon B. Eisenberg wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month to retract his endorsement of Brown after reading about a speech she gave to a Catholic group in late April.

Eisenberg, who has been a legal advocate for the right to die, said he was alarmed when he read the speech -- which he interpreted to mean that people didn’t have a right to control their own bodies.

Brown had told the group that these were “perilous times for people of faith.”

UC Berkeley emeritus law professor Stephen Barnett also supported Brown for the circuit court and changed his mind after learning of Brown’s speeches.

Among them was a remark she made attacking a 1937 U.S. Supreme Court decision that approved limitations on the number of hours people could be required to work.

The work place law “was generally regarded as a triumph of good sense and enlightenment,” Barnett said, “but she said it was wrong [and equated it to] a socialist revolution.”

Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelmen said that he had persisted in his support of Brown despite such speeches. He said he had read 147 of the majority opinions that Brown had written during her nine years on the state high court, and “I certainly don’t see any sign of an agenda.”

If Brown eventually goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, Uelmen said, “I would feel confident that I would get a fair shot arguing cases in front of her -- more so than I feel with Clarence Thomas.”

Uelmen, a liberal constitutional scholar, practices criminal defense.

Former UC Regent Ward Connerly, who championed the end of affirmative action in California and said he admired Brown, does not think she lets her race influence who she is or what she thinks.

Brown, in the interview several years ago, took exception to that.

“I don’t in any sense ignore or minimize the fact that I am a black woman and that has formed my life experience,” she said. “I know who I am.”