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Obituaries

Former Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, who steered state’s top court to the right, dies at 89

Malcolm Lucas

California Supreme Court Justice Malcolm M. Lucas swears in Joyce L. Kennard as justice on April 5, 1989 in Los Angeles.

(Associated Press)

Former California Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, who steered the state’s top court in a conservative direction after voters ousted the liberal Rose Bird, has died. He was 89.

Lucas died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home after being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, according to a spokesman for the California Supreme Court.

The jurist served on the state high court for 12 years, the last nine as chief justice.  He replaced Bird as chief after she and two other justices appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown lost a 1978 statewide retention election.

Their opposition, including then-Gov. George Deukmejian, portrayed the three as hostile to the death penalty.

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Lucas vowed “to heal the wounds” when Deukmejian elevated him to the top spot after Bird’s defeat. Legal analysts later credited Lucas with restoring  order and cordiality to the court, which had been racked by internal feuding and division.

“Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas was a man of great dignity and grace,” said current Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. “He came to the court during a time of upheaval in the judicial branch, and he brought stability, peace, and leadership to the court.”

Under Lucas’ leadership, the court shifted strongly to the right.  Whereas the Bird Court generally ruled in favor of consumers, labor and criminal defendants, the Lucas era was marked by victories for corporations, insurance companies and prosecutors.

The biggest turnaround was on the death penalty. A new conservative majority under Lucas upheld death sentences at a higher rate than any state high court in the country.

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Tall and reserved, with a shock of silver hair and a deep voice,  Lucas looked as though he had been picked for the job by Central Casting. He was a prodigious writer of rulings, many of them relatively short and most of them straightforward and to the point.

Lucas tried to ease tensions on the court when he became chief by being approachable to the other judges. He wandered the hallways and stopped in the offices of his colleagues to chat.

Bird, by contrast, had been viewed as a remote and distant administrator who kept her chamber doors shut and required other justices to make an appointment to speak to her.

But Lucas’ tenure was marred by allegations of unethical conduct after he accepted trips paid for by groups that had business before the court.  The Commission on Judicial Performance cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the Legislature later passed a law limiting the kinds of gifts and travel a judge could accept.

Lucas also angered the Legislature by authoring a decision that upheld a voter initiative limiting the terms of legislators and state officials and cutting the Legislature’s budget by 38%. 

A key legislative committee later retaliated by chopping the court’s budget by the same amount, though the final budget reflected a much smaller cutback.

Lucas and Deukmejian were law partners when Deukmejian was a state legislator. 

Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed Lucas to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1967, and President Nixon selected him three years later  for a life term on the federal district bench.

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Lucas served there until Deukmejian, by then governor, appointed him in 1984 to the California Supreme Court. After retiring from the court in 1996, Lucas worked as a private judge.

Lucas “brought a steady hand to the stewardship of the California Supreme Court and our state’s vast judicial system,” said former Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who succeeded Lucas. “His wise counsel and collegial approach to the resolution of legal and administrative issues set an excellent example for me and for other judges.”

Lucas was credited with pushing through administrative reforms in the high court’s internal operations that streamlined decision-making.

As head of the state judiciary, Lucas oversaw the creation of committees on gender, race and ethnic fairness in the courts, and in 1992 helped develop the first strategic plan for the judicial branch.  He also helped create the California Supreme Court Historical Society.

Lucas, born April 19, 1927, graduated from USC in 1950 and USC’s law school in 1953.

He is survived by his wife, Fiorenza Courtright Lucas, two children and six stepchildren. Information on funeral services was not available.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

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