SACRAMENTO — The way conservative state Sen. H.L. Richardson explained it Tuesday, he has Democrats boxed in on the issue of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and other justices he wants defeated at the polls in November.
The Glendora Republican, who controls two aggressive statewide political organizations, warned that any of his fellow legislators who decline to take public stands on Bird and the other justices will be branded as cowards and attacked by his Law and Order Campaign Committee, which claims a membership of 65,000 members.
"In the political arena, silence is often golden, but in this set of circumstances, I think it's a little yellow," Richardson said of the refusal of many lawmakers to answer three questionnaires sent to them by his committee seeking their positions on the justices.
On the other hand, Richardson told reporters that, although he respects the political courage of those legislators who have endorsed the embattled Justice Bird, he will campaign against them anyway.
"I'll go into their districts and talk to their constituents about it," vowed Richardson, whose statewide political operation in the past has played a key role in defeating several Democratic incumbents.
A spokesman for Bird accused Richardson of "politicizing our court system" and called his efforts to pressure other lawmakers into taking a position "an outrage."
Steven M. Glazer, communication director for Bird's Committee to Conserve The Courts, said: "Justice is supposed to be blind to race, religion and politics but Richardson's brand of justice would turn judges into pawns of the politicians. The most courageous politicians are the ones who stay out of the court campaign and thus reaffirm the principle of a judiciary independent of political pressures."
Bird has said she wants no support from politicians.
Richardson heads up the Campaign to Defeat Rose Bird, which raised and spent more than $400,000 last year. The campaign group is a part of Richardson's Law and Order Committee.
Richardson also is running in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, and backing a number of Republican candidates seeking Assembly and Senate seats.
The senator said his campaign to defeat Bird is nonpartisan.
But he released a list of 66 lawmakers who he said had not responded to a questionnaire sent out by his committee asking where they stand on Bird. And 65 of them are Democrats.
There were only two Democrats among the 51 legislators who answered the questionnaire and said they opposed Bird.
Only four officeholders, all Democrats, were identified as supporting Bird. One was incumbent Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who Richardson hopes to oppose in the November general election by winning the GOP primary. Richardson aides said McCarthy was not sent a questionnaire.
Several Democrats said Richardson had falsely accused them of failing to take a stand on Bird when in fact they had. The Democrats said Richardson is just trying to exploit the Bird issue for political reasons.
In fact, Richardson acknowledged at his news conference that a number of Democratic lawmakers had openly stated their support for Bird, although he distributed literature saying they had taken no position.
One was Sen. Nicholas C. Petris (D-Oakland), who is among Bird's most vocal public supporters. He accused Richardson of waging a campaign based on "fear and intimidation," threatening legislators by saying that if they did not respond to his questionnaire he would tell their constituents they were ducking the Bird question.
Calls It Garbage
"Why should I have responded to him? What duty do I have to his organization? Who the hell are they?" asked Petris. "I don't pay any attention to the garbage I receive from him. I threw it away."
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), another legislator who has expressed public support for Bird, did not answer Richardson's questionnaire. Susan Jetton, Brown's press secretary, said, "He (Brown) feels there is no reason why any of his (Assembly) members should respond to H.L. Richardson."
However, one Assembly Democrat who did respond, Assemblyman Art Agnos of San Francisco, said:
"To avoid an answer is to avoid taking a position on a well-planned, diabolic attack on one of the fundamental tenets of our criminal justice system--that is an independent, politically free court."
Richardson said he admires legislators like Petris and Brown who are willing to let people know where they stand.