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Stanley Mosk : Will Dean of High Court Hang It Up?

January 26, 1986|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

The question was whether the word data is plural or, as Mosk thought, singular. The U.S. court, quoting a passage from Mosk's opinion, indicated that it thought the word was plural by placing a "sic" after Mosk's usage.

After an intensive grammatical research project, experts concluded that the term can be used both ways. In the final version of the federal decision, the one printed in the official volumes that will be reviewed by generations of scholars, there is no "sic."

At the time that Mosk's Bakke decision came out in 1976, no issue was more emotional than reverse discrimination. Mosk, a Jew, had opposed quotas since his college days when some schools limited the number of Jewish students.

Still Against Quotas

That position since has become the minority one on the state court. But Mosk still maintains that quotas amount to "modern racism." Their use implies that whites make up a super-race against which minorities cannot compete, he has written.

Pique echoing in his voice, Mosk said his opposition to quotas cost him "a lot of good liberal friends." After his 1976 ruling, for example, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People called for his ouster. On the other side, his stand won praise from conservatives, among them President Reagan. "Conservatives can be right too," the justice said with a shrug.

For the most part, however, Mosk's opinions anger those on the right.

"There is no way he can be sainted when Rose Bird is being humiliated in public," said Christopher Heard of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Critics Point to Case

One example cited by court critics came last June, when Mosk wrote a decision overturning the death sentence of Theodore Frank for the 1978 torture-murder of 2 1/2-year-old Amy Sue Seitz. The girl's grandmother serves on the steering committee of Crime Victims for Court Reform, a group actively opposing the reelection of Bird, along with that of Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso in the November election--but not Mosk.

Earlier, Gov. George Deukmejian, urging business leaders to oppose Bird, issued a list of 31 cases to show that the court was "anti-business." Mosk wrote nine of the so-called anti-business cases, more than any other justice.

One of his most passionately liberal stands involved the Victims' Bill of Rights initiative, a 1982 measure sponsored by conservatives that brought sweeping changes to the criminal justice system. The measure took an especially heavy toll on Mosk's opinions, undercutting his doctrine of using the state Constitution in criminal cases.

Biting Dissent

Vainly trying to convince the court to strike down the measure, Mosk wrote perhaps his most biting dissent, declaring: ". . . (The) Goddess of Justice is wearing a black arm-band today, as she weeps for the Constitution of California."

"I had an answer to that, but I took it out (before the opinion became public)," recalled retired Justice Frank K. Richardson, who wrote the 4-3 majority opinion. "Something like . . . 'She'd get over it, and find other things to worry about.' "

Through it all, Mosk has maintained an active social life and an abiding interest in state politics.

Off the bench, Mosk is the court's most active public speaker. To a law librarians' convention in Anaheim, he spun yarns about the court of the 19th Century when one justice shot and killed a senator in a duel. To college students in Ireland, he lectured on international treaties.

Mosk's first wife died after a long fight with cancer and, three years ago, the justice married a woman he met at his tennis club. Susan Mosk is 30 years younger than her husband, but says she only recently has been able to beat him at tennis.

On Governor's Staff

The son of an Inglewood haberdasher, Mosk entered politics in 1939, becoming executive secretary to Gov. Culbert Olson. He was a few years out of law school, which he began at the University of Chicago and, because of money problems, finished at the less expensive Southwestern University in Los Angeles.

A New Deal liberal, Olson found himself stymied by stubborn legislators and was defeated after a single term by Earl Warren. Olson's chief legacy was his appointment of several liberal justices who shaped the Supreme Court into one of the most progressive benches in the country.

Olson also rewarded Mosk in 1942 with his first judicial appointment, to the Los Angeles Superior Court.

In 1958, he was elected attorney general, one of many Democrats led into office by Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who won the governorship that year.

Slap at Birchers

With a politician's ear for catchy phrases, Mosk drew attention to himself. He shrugged off the John Birch Society as "little old ladies in tennis shoes."

"I really saw those little old ladies in political meetings," Mosk recalled. "They were the first to arrive and the last to leave and they were always making motions--and their feet hurt, so they wore tennis shoes."

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