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Lawyers Break Tradition, Support Move to Oust Bird

September 15, 1985|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

There have been fewer epithets, and no more stuffed turkeys named "Rosie" are in evidence lately, but if the campaign against California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird is growing more courteous, it also is expanding beyond its raucous right-wing base.

For the first time, prominent members of the state's legal community, which has traditionally rallied to the defense of the California Supreme Court, are speaking out against Bird. Saying they are disaffected moderates and liberals, the lawyers are taking issue with the California State Bar's time-honored stand against opposing Supreme Court justices for political or philosophical reasons.

"All of a sudden it's gotten respectable to get up and say 'I'm voting against Rose Bird,' " said Mary Nichols, a Los Angeles lawyer who was secretary for environmental affairs under former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown.

"The chief justice has politicized the court by putting her political and social views above the law. She has created an air of hostility to the judiciary that could be terribly damaging to the court system of this state," said Bill Wardlaw, a Democratic activist and one of Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's top advisers who has helped run campaigns for Brown and liberal Sen. Alan Cranston.

Support 'Definitely Eroded'

"I would say support for the chief justice definitely has eroded," said Charles Vogel, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

Developments in the campaign against Bird have contributed to new tensions among her allies in the legal community and have put the court under unprecedented political pressure.

For almost 50 years, members of the court have sought reelection without immersing themselves in campaign politics. The justices have left the campaigning to others and, without exception, have won reelection.

Recently, however, to the dismay of some of her supporters, Bird indicated she would break with tradition and head her own campaign.

"I think she is making a grave mistake," said Los Angeles lawyer Mickey Kantor, a Bird supporter who has helped run campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, as well as Cranston and Brown.

By running her own campaign, Kantor and other critics said, Bird will accentuate her reputation as a political judge and make it easier for people to abandon her cause.

After Bird decided to campaign, spokesmen for two other justices, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, said they were in the process of organizing their own reelection drives. Along with Bird, Grodin and Reynoso have been targeted for defeat by the court's conservative critics.

In all, six justices may face voters in next year's election. In addition to Bird, Grodin and Reynoso, they are Malcolm Lucas, the court's only conservative; Stanley Mosk, a liberal who has said he may retire before the election; and an unnamed replacement for Otto Kaus, who has announced that he will retire.

Death Penalty Record

Political opposition to the court's liberal majority stems, in part, from its record on the state's death penalty law: It has come down against enforcement in 33 of the 36 cases that have come before it, with Bird voting against the death penalty in all 36 cases. In addition, a pattern of opinions favoring poor people, tenants, labor organizations and Democratic political interests have led to charges that a majority of justices is putting its own ideology above the law.

"The court has repeatedly displayed an ideological hostility toward property ownership and business interests in general," said Gideon Kanner, a member of the Loyola Law School faculty who said he has grown increasingingly disenchanted with the court since 1977, when he wrote a letter on behalf of Bird's confirmation to the court.

During the eight years Bird has been in office, she has aroused personal reactions that have helped supercharge the politics of her reelection. California's first woman chief justice, Bird has inspired deep loyalty among many supporters who see her as as an uncomprising defender of minority rights. Conversely, she has inspired rage among critics for what they see as Bird's pious repudiation of mainstream mores.

Conservative groups gave vent to their animosity with such campaign slogans as "Bye Bye Birdie," with references to Bird, Grodin, Reynoso and Mosk as "the Gang of Four" and with the display of a feathered, stuffed turkey dubbed "Rosie."

Bird fanned the flames recently with comments to a vegetarian magazine in which she extolled the virtues of meat avoidance, saying she thinks it helps put her in touch with "her inner sea of calm . . . with nature and with the beauty of the planet."

(Bird declined to be interviewed for this article.)

'Sitting Ducks'

Spokesmen for the chief justice say that for the last several months, she has been trying to develop a strategy that will meet her critics head-on without plunging the court into election-year politics.

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