For 21 months, the campaign for the California Supreme Court has grown ever more visible, costly and virulent. And it's just starting.
On Thursday--11 months before the confirmation vote on six of seven members of the high court--Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, chief target of conservative court critics, stepped up her political defense with her first major Southern California fund-raising dinner at the Beverly Hilton, expected to raise on the order of $280,000.
Bird was presented to her supporters as an all-American success story--a little girl on a ranch who came to be the first woman to sit on the California Supreme Court.
"A heartwarming story," said keynote speaker Anthony Murray, former president of the State Bar Assn. and leader of Bird's Committee to Conserve the Courts. ". . . And what has been her reward? Praise? Applause?
"Hardly. Her reward . . . is unremitting abuse. Disgustingly vulgar, vitriolic abuse, especially, and ironically, from the right wing, from the self-styled super-Americans who so loudly celebrate the American way of success. Unless, of course, the success comes to the wrong person--to a woman instead of an ol' boy."
In brief remarks, Bird told her enthusiastic supporters: "I did not seek this fight, but I will not shirk from it. . . . The rule of law is a precious heritage and worth fighting for."
Opponents, meanwhile, are preparing doubled-barreled holiday-season attacks on the Bird court, seeking to drive home the bloody circumstances of select murder cases in which death sentences or convictions have been overturned by the court.
State Sen. H. L. Richardson (R-Glendora) and his Law and Order Campaign Committee on Thursday previewed a 28-minute, documentary-style film that he is distributing in videocassettes to political supporters and law enforcement officials. Richardson said thousands of the home videocassettes would be distributed in California for viewing in living rooms and meeting halls, telling of seven killings in which jury death penalty verdicts were undone.
In Orange County, an organization called Californians to Defeat Rose Bird prepared to send advertisements to newspapers Christmas week telling the story of a 17-year-old who was murdered and how her family feels about the Supreme Court. A campaign spokeswoman said the ads are designed for "shock appeal."
Court opponents began organizing as far back as March, 1984. The campaign intensity on both sides is without precedent in modern California judicial history, leading up to November, 1986, when Bird and five other justices stand for a "yes" or "no' vote.
With the proceeds of Thursday's dinner included, the Bird campaign says it will have $1 million in the bank at the start of the 1986 campaign year--money that is expected to be used largely for her own television advertising campaign. Opponents have raised perhaps twice that, but have spent much of it to finance greater fund-raising drives.
Both sides on Thursday battled over the reputation of California's highest court.
Murray, speaking to the audience of 1,050, declared: "This fine lady has done her job. No chief justice before her has worked harder. Under her leadership, year after year, the Supreme Court sets a new record for matters handled."
The other view is expressed by a prosecutor interviewed in Richardson's film.
"It's the laughing stock of the United States," David Henderson, Yolo County district attorney, tells viewers.
A spokesman for the chief justice's campaign, unhappy that Bird's fund-raising dinner would share news billing with attacks from opponents, declared: "His movie should be rated triple X--extreme, exploitative and exaggerated."
The Richardson film was called into question at a news conference in Sacramento over its claim that a man convicted of killing a 12-year-old girl is free today because of the Bird court. The man in question is Rodney James Alcala, whose conviction indeed was overturned by the Supreme Court. But Alcala remains behind bars pending a March 3 retrial, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.
A spokesman for Richardson said the intent is to emphasize that Alcala is "free from the death penalty." The spokesman said the narration would be changed in future versions.
At the chief justice's dinner, Murray, a skilled trial lawyer, argued at length that Bird is merely the latest in a long line of judges to feel the sting of conservative political anger. He named several but focused on former California Chief Justice Donald Wright, appointed by then-governor and now President Reagan. Wright's independence, Murray recalled, later angered Reagan.
"The Wright court's death-penalty box score was especially galling to right-wing politicians. And it was impressive: death sentence reversals, 176; death penalty affirmances, 0."