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Lone Justice : She's Been Described as Compassionate and Vindictive, Warm and Intimidating, Highly Respected and Unqualified for the Job. In Search of the Real Rose Bird.

October 05, 1986|FRANK CLIFFORD | Frank Clifford is a Times staff writer

Rose Bird is a character: sipping carrot juice, talking to the animals at a city zoo, discussing meditation and her search for an "inner sea of calm," asking the bewigged chief of Sydney, Australia's highest court if his scalp itched, lecturing a cabdriver on the dangers of cocaine, denouncing the political system as "bankrupt," insisting after the 59th consecutive time she overturned a death penalty that her personal views on capital punishment don't affect her opinions.

There has always been something about Bird--whether it is her unyielding sense of right and wrong, her indifference to worldly goods or her evangelism on behalf of secular causes from vegetarianism to feminism--that has set her apart from other people in public life.

Perhaps the most enduring image of Rose Elizabeth Bird is that of a woman alone--the plucky schoolgirl pedaling long miles to school in the rain; the teen-age idealist working for Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential campaign long before it was fashionable for young people to work in politics; the legal ingenue defending accused rapists and murderers as the first female member of the Santa Clara County public defender's office; the recluse of the Brown Administration who worked late, skipped the Sacramento parties and went home to her mother; the determined survivor who struggled against repeated onslaughts of cancer without resigning from either the Cabinet or the Supreme Court; the spoilsport who sold the Supreme Court's limousine and put an end to the justices' annual meetings at fancy resorts; the stubborn jurist whose unbroken string of death penalty reversals defies the public's appetite for capital punishment; the embattled candidate who has spurned the help of supporters and has drawn away from friends.

Now, as Bird prepares for an election that could end her nine-year career as chief justice of California, she is working hard to explode the image of an eccentric liberal and to show that she is a reasonable person whose thinking is in line with mainstream values. In her speeches and television ads Bird stresses that her controversial record on the court is based on nothing more than her adherence to old-fashioned constitutional principles.

Bird's friends hope she will project the same salt-of-the-earth qualities--wit, charm and generosity--they value in the chief justice, qualities they say have been hidden from view. "She has been unfairly criticized. That's not to say she might have done some things more tactfully. History, though, I think will show that she has been one of the most courageous and visionary members of the Supreme Court," says Appeals Court Justice John T. Racanelli, who used to drive to work with Bird and whose wife, Betty Medsger, is the author of a ringing defense of Bird's first years on the court.

Racanelli's mixture of regret and respect is typical of many people who see Bird as a remarkable person who sometimes manages to be her own worst enemy.

From her earliest days on the court, Bird has been criticized for being aloof and imperious. Lately, even people such as Racanelli who have been close to her in the past say that Bird has begun to distance herself from them. "There has been almost an estrangement that has set in between the chief justice--I used to call her Rose--and people as close to her as I was, even closer. It's been a disappointment," he says.

Racanelli says he thinks Bird's conduct has hurt her. "If one withdraws from public contact, from face-to-face discussions, it can create confusion, even disillusionment, and I think that has happened." Yet, he says it has not dampened his respect for her.

One of Bird's former law clerks puts it this way: "She is an extraordinary person, and it approaches Greek tragedy what has happened, where certain of her personal qualities have gotten in the way of what she could have accomplished."

BIRD WAS AN UNKNOWN QUANTITY WHEN she joined the cabinet of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. in 1975. Aside from campaign work, she had no political experience when Brown appointed her secretary of agriculture and services.

Bird immediately impressed people.

"At cabinet meetings she would throw her head back like a clipper ship in full sail and state the moral boundaries of an issue with the clearest, cleanest view of anyone I ever heard," says one of Bird's colleagues in the Brown Administration, where Bird served as secretary of agriculture and services from 1975 to 1977. "She had a directness about her, a sort of Yankee panache, that could shut down a debate with just a few well-chosen words."

The colleague recalled Bird's contribution to a long debate between Brown and several assistants over the question of providing portable toilets to a crowd of demonstrators who were staging a protest on the Capitol grounds. "The issue was whether the toilets would make the demonstration so comfortable that it would go on longer and cause more people to take part. The discussion had been going on for an hour when Rose walked in.

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