Gov. George Deukmejian said Thursday that his decision on whether to support the retention of Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin on the state Supreme Court will hinge largely on how they vote on future death penalty cases.
But the governor, who long has supported the death penalty and opposes retention of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, said he does not expect either justice to suddenly begin voting to impose capital punishment in anticipation of the November general election.
"I think they are very honorable individuals," Deukmejian said at a Los Angeles press conference. I disagree with the way they interpret the law but I think they are honest people."
The confirmation vote for Supreme Court justices has become a key issue in the gubernatorial rematch between Republican Deukmejian and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, his probable Democratic rival.
Deukmejian has been attacking Bradley for delaying a decision on whether to support Bird, while Bradley, in turn, has accused the governor of "one of the great acts of hypocrisy" in failing to state his position on Grodin or Reynoso. In an attempt to deflect some of that criticism, Deukmejian has said he is "leaning against" voter confirmation of the two justices but will wait to review their full court records before making a public announcement.
Asked Thursday whether he would consider endorsing Grodin and Reynoso if the two would begin affirming death penalty cases, Deukmejian said, "It certainly would help a lot."
But the governor quickly rejected suggestions that he was trying to intimidate the justices into making a political decision on capital cases.
"I don't want any justice to change his position because of how I might vote," Deukmejian said. "They've known my position on the death penalty for years . . . and certainly that hasn't affected their position."
Later, Deukmejian added: "If they are worth their salt at all, they should review the cases, examine the record and make their honest and best judgments. They shouldn't be intimidated."
Thursday's full news conference was the first that Deukmejian has held this year in Los Angeles, allowing the governor access to television and radio coverage in the state's largest media market. Deukmejian, like other governors, has found it difficult to attract that kind of coverage in Sacramento, where Southern California television and radio stations no longer maintain full-time bureaus.
Deukmejian has been trying to stay on the offensive with the Supreme Court issue and, as in the past, the governor tried to turn questions about his stance into attacks on Bradley. Asked whether there is any difference between his delaying a decision on Grodin and Reynoso and Bradley's announcement that he would take 60 days to review Bird's record, Deukmejian said: "They are entirely different issues."
Deukmejian said there is an ample record on Bird, who was appointed chief justice in 1976, while Grodin and Reynoso were not appointed to the high court until 1982. Bird has voted to strike down every death penalty case that has gone before the court. Reynoso and Grodin have voted to affirm the death penalty in a small number of cases.