From the Archives: Wiley Manuel, First Black on State High Court, Dies

California Supreme Court Justice Wiley W. Manuel in 1979.
Times Staff Writer

California Supreme Court Justice Wiley W. Manuel, the first black ever to serve on the state’s highest court, died Monday of cancer. He was 53.

The son of a railroad dining car waiter and a domestic worker, Manuel was named to the Supreme Court by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. on Feb. 12, 1977, along with Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the first woman ever appointed to the court.

He had been ill for some time but had been home recuperating when he suffered a relapse last week and returned to Providence Hospital in Oakland. His sister, Earline Ford, said he died in the hospital at 8 a.m.

Seriousness Not Well Known


The seriousness of his illness had not been widely known, and in mid-December, while he was at home after an earlier release from the hospital, an aide told a reporter the justice was “coming along nicely.”

The aide said that although it was unlikely that Manuel would be able to attend oral arguments scheduled by the court this week in Los Angeles, the justice was doing some court work at home.

“It is difficult to put into words the deep feeling of loss that the death of Justice Manuel has brought to our court and to the people of California,” Bird said. “He was not only a fine justice but a sweet and gentle man who was a friend to all.

“He will be remembered for the strength of his character, his love of the law and his dedication to fairness and justice. With his passing, the court has lost a respected member and the justices have lost a beloved colleague and personal friend.”

Manuel’s death will enable Brown to appoint his fourth justice since taking office as governor six years ago. In additional to Manuel and Bird, Brown’s other appointment was Frank C. Newman, a former law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

There also is a possibility of another vacancy on the court if Justice William P. Clark, considered the court’s most conservative member, accepts an offer from President-elect Ronald Reagan to become deputy secretary of state under Gen. Alexander Haig Jr.

Clark, who was appointed to the court by Reagan in 1973 when the President-elect was governor, is said to be concerned, however, about creating an imbalance on the court by giving Brown a chance to name a liberal justice and may decide to reject the Reagan offer because of that.

Governor’s Statement

The governor, in Los Angeles for a meeting with law enforcement leaders, said it was with “the deepest regret” that he learned of Manuel’s death. “In his commitment and dedication to public service, he exemplified the highest quality of justice in our state,” Brown said.

“His accomplishments will remain a source of inspiration to all who have known him. He will be greatly missed by the people of California.”

Before his elevation to the Supreme Court, Manuel was an Alameda County Superior Court judge. He also worked for 23 years in the state attorney general’s office and was chief assistant in charge of the office’s civil division when he was name to the Superior Court bench by Brown in 1976.

Although his appointment to the high court was marked with little or none of the controversy that swirled about the naming of Bird, Manuel’s reviews from the legal community were mixed.

A member of the State Bar Board of Governors once described Manuel as a “technician more than an architect of great thinking,” and legal scholar Bernard Witkin said Manuel was “catapulted into the job without any background whatsoever.”

But a close friend, Appeal Court Justice Clinton White, said he never met a man “who instinctively loved the law like he did . . . He dedicated his life to state service at a considerable sacrifice. With his background, he could have gone into private practice and made a lot of money.”

Manuel told friends when he was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice that at the time he was graduated from law school (in 1953), “I could not aspire to this bench.” He called Brown’s appointing him “an act of courage.”

And he quoted the great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who said: “Before the law, there should be no rich, no poor . . . no high, no low . . . no black, no white.”

Grew Up in Ghettos

A native of Oakland, he grew up in the black ghettos of Oakland and Berkeley and attended Berkeley schools, the University of California and Hastings College of Law. He was a backup second baseman on the Berkeley High School baseball team behind Billy Martin, now manager of the Oakland Athletics.

“As a person growing up in Oakland, I made a transition that some people don’t make,” he once told an interviews. “I guess you would call it social mobility.

“My family was a very modest one in terms of economic status, and my friend did all sorts of things for a living. I still cherish friendships from elementary school on up.

“And I am enriched by the fact that today I can talk to the governor and also to what you might call a menial worker.”

During his tenure on the seven-member Supreme Court, Manuel had emerged as neither a clear-cut liberal or a conservative. As a judicial centrist, he often provided a crucial “swing vote” to establish a majority for both the court’s liberal and conservative wings. In oral arguments, he frequently questioned lawyers closely but without giving any indication of how he might ultimately vote.

He joined conservative majorities in August, 1979, and again in October, 1980, to uphold the state’s new death penalty law — clearing the way for the resumption of capital punishment in California — and his death leaves the court split 3-3 on that issue.

He also joined conservative Justices Clark and Frank K. Richardson in several dissents—among them indecisions where the court majority made it easier for alleged victims to bring product liability suits, liberalized the rules for releasing criminal defendants on their own recognizance and mandated the prospective jurors in death penalty cases must be questioned about their view in closed proceedings.

Controversial Decision

And he wrote the dissent in a controversial 4-3 decision in which the court struck down so-called “anti-commune” zoning ordinances in 38 California cities — laws that limited the number of unrelated persons residing in single-family dwellings.

But he joined liberals on the court to form a 4-3 majority in a ruling last January upholding the use of racial quotas in affirmative action plans for hiring public employees.

And, in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, he wrote the majority opinion in a 4-3 decision in November, 1979, in which the court reversed the conviction of Barry Floyd Braeseke, an accused triple slayer, and invalidated two confessions Braeseke had made.

Incriminating Statements

Manuel wrote that Braeseke had not made a “knowing and intelligent” waiver of his rights to silence and counsel when he made incriminating statements “off the record” to authorities.

In a politically charged case in December, 1979, Manuel wrote the court decision upholding the authority of Lt. Gov. Mike Curb to exercise the powers of governor during Brown’s absences out of state. The court also held, however, that Brown, upon returning, could withdraw judicial appointments made by Curb.

“His philosophy was that of maintaining the status quo whenever possible,” a colleague, Justice Stanley Mosk, said. “He was a very moderate person in his personal life and in the view he had on legal and social matters.”

The court postponed its oral argument calendar for the week in Manuel’s memory, and the Manuel family said details of a memorial service for the justice would be announced later in the week.

Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Eleanor, a daughter, Yvonne, and son, Gary.