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Court Defends King's Principles, Bird Says

September 29, 1986|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

Invoking the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the menace of South African apartheid, California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird took her campaign to five black churches in South-Central Los Angeles on Sunday, where she told people that her court stood for the kind of justice that King fought for and that South Africa denies.

"I thought of Martin Luther King, who had a dream, a dream of a society where justice is blindfolded . . . where you will have justice whether you are wealthy or poor, powerful or weak," Bird told a warmly receptive congregation at West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

Bird's church visits were part of a full schedule of court-related events in Los Angeles over the weekend, with Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso speaking at a Malibu fund-raiser Saturday and opponents of the three justices holding a rally the same day at UCLA.

Bird pictured the court as a brave defender of minority rights against the hostile tendencies of a government that, she reminded her audiences, had placed blacks in segregated schools and Japanese-Amer- icans in internment camps.

More specifically, Bird pitted the court against the governor, the Legislature and those people in society whom she likened to South Africans who "don't believe that everyone counts." (Gov. George Deukmejian, whom she did not mention by name, is the most prominent opponent of Bird's reconfirmation.)

"That's what we are fighting for, a judiciary that has people who can say to a governor, 'No, you can't do that,' who can say to a Legislature, 'No, you can't do that,' " Bird said.

All in all, it was the kind of performance Bird's supporters have been hoping for all year--one in which the liberal chief justice would take her considerable gifts for political oratory to those, including poor people, minorities and senior citizens, who make up her most natural constituency.

Bird avoided any discussion of the death penalty, except to say that it is a subterfuge used by her opponents to divert attention from their true motive--which she said is to put control of the judiciary in the hands of special interests.

The congregations of at least two of the churches where she spoke greeted Bird's remarks with hearty applause and fervent "amens," evidence that the chief justice's busiest and most visible morning of the campaign, so far, was working to her advantage.

Unusually accessible to the press, Bird invited reporters and photographers along while she ate breakfast with a group of supporters at Ray's Redwood Kitchen on South Western Avenue. And after her tour of churches was over, she held a friendly, impromptu press conference, the first of its kind in the year-old campaign, and a far cry from the chilly one-on-one encounters with reporters that she used to hold in her chambers.

On Saturday afternoon, at the rally staged by opponents of Bird, Grodin and Reynoso, the speakers hammered away at a central theme of their campaign--that the Supreme Court cares more for the rights of accused criminals than it does for victims.

Robert Henderson, whose college-age son was murdered along with two friends in 1978, said he has never been able to understand how the Supreme Court could reverse the killer's death sentence, as it did, because of objections to a psychiatrist's testimony about the defendant's homicidal nature.

"The court ruled that it was unfair to a man who had savagely murdered a group of innocent young people to talk about his homicidal tendencies, and yet, we were never permitted in court to say anything to the jury about our son's character," Henderson said.

"As a victim, you end up feeling like a villain," he said.

Marianne Frazier, the mother of a murdered 12-year-old girl whose killer was spared the death penalty by the state Supreme Court, spoke of the agony she and her family were forced to endure as a result of the court's action.

Although her daughter's killer has been tried and sentenced to death a second time, Frazier said she was certain that the Supreme Court under Bird, Grodin and Reynoso would again overturn the sentence.

Ordeal for Family

"If they (the justices) stay in office, there's going to be a third trial. . . . They've got to go, because I don't think anyone in my family can go through it again," Frazier said.

The rally on the UCLA campus where Henderson and Frazier spoke drew only about 200 people, after flyers advertising the event said 2,000 were expected. The rally was sponsored by Crime Victims for Court Reform, one of the main opposition groups campaigning against Bird, Grodin and Reynoso.

About 75 people attending a beachfront fund-raising cocktail party in Malibu heard Reynoso say that he was tired of being described by his opponents as someone who cared more for criminals than for their victims.

Grodin told the same group that if all three justices under attack are removed from the court, "it would have a catastrophic impact on the way the court is perceived" because the justices, henceforth, would be regarded as "legislators in black robes" whose job is to follow the dictates of powerful politicians.

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