SAN FRANCISCO — State appellate Justice Edward A. Panelli, a judicial moderate whose rulings in criminal law reflect a conservative outlook, was confirmed Wednesday to the state Supreme Court.
Panelli, 54, took office immediately after he was confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, composed of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and Court of Appeal Justice Lester Roth.
Panelli, who began his legal career in a two-person law firm in San Jose and was first appointed to the bench in 1972, is Gov. George Deukmejian's second appointment to the seven-member Supreme Court.
On criminal matters, he is likely to join Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, Deukmejian's other appointee, to form a conservative minority against the generally liberal majority of five justices, based on interviews with lawyers and a review of his rulings.
Most of the 75-minute confirmation hearing consisted of laudatory comments by friends and former colleagues. Panelli testified briefly at the end and was confirmed immediately by a unanimous voice vote. He starts work today.
At one point during the hearing, however, Panelli appeared slightly nervous under questioning by Van de Kamp. He said in response to questions from the attorney general that he met with the governor in October but was not asked to commit himself on how he will vote on controversial issues, among them the death penalty, which Deukmejian supports. Van de Kamp regularly asks judicial nominees whether the governor seeks such promises.
As his wife, sons and more than 100 friends and court officials looked on, Panelli added that he probably told the governor his views on several legal issues. He has previously said he would be willing to vote to uphold death sentences.
"I may have initiated a lot of the conversation (with the governor and his appointments secretary Marvin Baxter), because they are not very expressive," Panelli said, noting that he told his wife afterward that he doubted he would receive the appointment.
In announcing the nomination last month, Deukmejian predicted that "our crusade for common sense justice will be exceptionally well served" by Panelli. Deukmejian made the liberal judicial appointments of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. a major campaign issue when he ran for governor three years ago.
Deukmejian selected Panelli from a field of six candidates to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Otto M. Kaus, who will enter private law practice in Los Angeles.
Of the six candidates, Panelli was the only one who received a rating of exceptionally well qualified by the State Bar committee that investigated the candidates. Carol Slater of Frederick, speaking Wednesday on behalf of the committee, called Panelli's disposition and work "remarkable and extraordinary."
Panelli was viewed by lawyers familiar with the five men and one woman as being the most moderate.
Panelli received 266 letters supporting his nomination and three opposing it. At Wednesday's hearing, his appointment was endorsed by the California District Attorneys Assn. and the California Trial Lawyers Assn.
The trial lawyers' representative at the hearing, Vernon W. Hunt, referred to the effort to unseat four liberal justices and predicted that Panelli will be a justice "who will stand up to intimidation." Panelli will be on the November, 1986, ballot, along with five other members of the Supreme Court.
Retired Court of Appeal Justice Thomas Caldecott, who was to administer Panelli's oath of office, called Panelli a "good worker" who writes "practical, usable opinions." Caldecott added that Panelli's views "certainly were not out in right field."
The Rev. William J. Rewak of the University of Santa Clara, where Panelli was a member of the board of governors, called him an "extraordinarily humane person," adding, "Lest this sound too sanctified, I'm aware that canonization usually occurs after death."
Three people spoke against Panelli on Wednesday. One said he knew little about Panelli but believed the courts were being "politicized." Another appeared to be upset over a dispute with Panelli while the jurist was on a community college board of trustees. A third questioned the constitutionality of the Judicial Appointments Commission.
Appointment by Reagan
Panelli's first judicial appointment came in 1972, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan named him to the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Acting at the end of his second term in 1982, Brown tried to elevate Panelli to the Court of Appeal. However, Deukmejian, who as attorney general was a member of the Commission on Judicial Appointments, blocked that appointment.
Deukmejian had said he opposed Brown's two other appointees to what would be a new appellate court branch in San Jose and thus would not vote to affirm Panelli to a court that did not exist.
Once he was elected governor, Deukmejian made Panelli his first appellate court appointee, assigning him to the court in San Francisco and then to the newly opened San Jose appellate court, where Panelli was presiding justice.
Panelli grew up in San Jose, where his Italian immigrant parents were laborers and worked on farms and in packing houses in the Santa Clara Valley.
In a letter expressing interest in the appointment--a letter requested by the governor--Panelli said prejudice he encountered as an immigrants' child who did not speak English until age 5 made him "more sensitive to the needs of the many people whose cases I review. . . ."
"My parents taught me that with hard work and perseverance, a person can just about accomplish whatever goals one may have for himself. I firmly believe in that philosophy," he wrote.
Panelli was graduated in 1955 at the top of his class from the University of Santa Clara Law School.
He is married and has three sons.