SACRAMENTO — Gov. George Deukmejian announced Monday that he will oppose the reconfirmation of state Supreme Court Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin, charging that they--like Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird--have demonstrated "a lack of impartiality and objectivity" in overturning death penalty sentences.
Deukmejian has long been one of Bird's harshest critics, but until Monday he had held open the slim possibility of perhaps supporting the reconfirmation efforts of Reynoso and Grodin.
In all, six of the California Supreme Court's seven justices will be up for voter reconfirmation on the Nov. 4 ballot. The Republican governor said he will split his vote, opposing three justices and supporting three: Edward Panelli and Malcolm Lucas, both of whom he appointed, and Stanley Mosk, the court dean.
Historically, it is highly unusual for a governor or any major officeholder to oppose a Supreme Court justice's reconfirmation. But Bird's unpopularity among the voters--as measured by public opinion polls--has focused controversy on the court and made it one of the most volatile political issues of the year in California.
In fact, Deukmejian this fall intends to make criticism of the Bird court one of the centerpieces of his reelection campaign, contrasting his own public opposition to Bird, Reynoso and Grodin with the neutral stance of his Democratic challenger, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
The mayor, previously a strong supporter of Bird, has declined this year to take a stand on any justice's reconfirmation on grounds that the court should not be further politicized.
Deukmejian took a subtle slap at Bradley, without mentioning his opponent by name, in announcing his opposition to Reynoso and Grodin.
"Because it is the governor who appoints judges . . . I believe that candidates for the office of governor have a responsibility to tell the people how they are going to vote on these highest-ranking judges," the governor said in a two-page statement issued by his office.
As he previously had with Bird, Deukmejian based his opposition to Reynoso and Grodin on their rulings against the death penalty.
Review of Votes
"A thorough review of the opinions and votes cast by Justices Bird, Grodin and Reynoso on death penalty cases indicates a lack of impartiality and objectivity," Deukmejian said. "They have demonstrated a proclivity to substitute their judgment for the people's, as expressed through the legislative process, the initiative process and the Constitution."
Deukmejian's spokesman, Kevin Brett, said research by the governor's aides showed that Reynoso had voted to overturn 44 of the 45 death penalty cases to come before him and Grodin had voted against 38 of the 43 cases before him. Bird has voted to overturn all 59 of the death penalty cases she has considered.
There has not been a death sentence carried out in California since 1967.
Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, co-chairman of a campaign group that is supporting reconfirmation of all the justices, said Deukmejian's action was "an obvious effort to control the Supreme Court and I think it's a disgrace."
Brown, now a Los Angeles attorney, pointed out that the governor would nominate replacements for any justices denied reconfirmation. If Deukmejian were to nominate two more justices, his appointees would hold a majority on the court.
"For Deukmejian to use the death penalty as an issue in his effort to try to change the court really is outrageous," Brown said.
Brown's son, Edmund G. Brown Jr., is the governor who appointed Bird, Grodin and Reynoso to the Supreme Court.
Neither Reynoso nor Grodin was available for comment Monday. Reynoso was recuperating after a 15-foot fall that happened Sunday while he was stacking hay at his ranch south of Sacramento. But campaign spokesmen for the jurists lamented what they characterized as Deukmejian's political opportunism.
Reynoso's campaign manager, Neil Rincover, pointed out that anti-court groups recently have had difficulty raising money.
"I'm sure the right wing has been putting pressure on him, and he caved in," Rincover said. "I assume this will help their fund-raising."
He added that "the governor knows that the records of Reynoso and Grodin have been distorted."
George Kieffer, Southern California chairman for Grodin's campaign, pointed out that three times in the past Deukmejian--as state attorney general--had voted while a member of the Commission on Judicial Appointments to confirm Grodin, first as an appellate judge and then as a Supreme Court justice.
"He knew all about Joe Grodin all three times. There is nothing new about Joe Grodin. I am sad that politics has finally gotten to the governor on this," Kieffer said. "I'm shocked and disappointed and think this is outrageous."
Brett replied that Grodin never had ruled in a death penalty case prior to Deukmejian's previous confirmation votes.
A recent public opinion survey by the independent California Poll showed Bird trailing in voter sentiment by a margin of 24 points but Reynoso leading by 12 points and Grodin by 18.
Deukmejian praised justices Lucas, Mosk and Panelli--who were ahead in the poll by margins ranging from 24 to 31 points--for reflecting "high standards of impartiality and objectivity, as well as a sensitivity to the will of the people and the intent of the Constitution."
Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward Jagels, chairman of Crime Victims for Court Reform, which is opposing Bird, Reynoso and Grodin, said: "It is gratifying that the governor has taken into account the anti-public safety records of all three justices."