Delivering one of her sharpest retorts of the campaign, California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird on Wednesday scolded Gov. George Deukmejian for opposing her and two other members of the state Supreme Court, saying that he is not only wrong but ignorant of the way courts are supposed to function in society.
". . . You are wrong when you try to remove justices because they will not do your bidding, because you did not appoint them and because you do not control them. You do not understand at a very fundamental level what our society is all about, what the rule of law is all about and what constitutional government is about," Bird told an enthusiastic audience of about 200 women at a Beverly Hills luncheon sponsored by Women For, an organization that promotes civil and human rights causes.
Bird made the speech on a day when the results of new statewide public opinion polls indicated that her busiest month of campaigning has not led to a substantial improvement in her approval rating.
The California Poll, conducted by Mervyn Field and broadcast in Los Angeles Wednesday by KCBS-TV, shows Bird's approval rate slipping two points since August, with 31% of the voters favoring her reelection, 55% against her and 14% undecided.
A survey by independent pollster Steven Teichner of Orange County and Philadelphia shows Bird trailing by a 23-point margin, with 27% of the voters favoring her, 50% opposing her and 23% undecided. Teichner said that the 27% approval rating represents a three-point improvement from poll results released just after Labor Day.
Both the California Poll and Teichner's poll continue to reflect winning margins for the two other members of the Supreme Court, Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, who are facing organized opposition.
Although the issue most frequently debated is the court's record on capital punishment, Bird said Wednesday that Deukmejian's opposition to her, Grodin and Reynoso has nothing to do with the death penalty and everything to do with a longstanding effort to control the state's judiciary from the court of appeal on up.
"We have a governor who truly thinks that it is his right to control another branch of government," Bird said, contending that his attempt to exert that control dates back to 1982, when he blocked three appointments by outgoing Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to the 6th Appellate District.
Bird said she could not believe that voters "want a court system that owes its allegiance first to a political party, that owes its allegiance first to a governor, that puts a moistened finger in the air to see what's popular and then votes that way."
At the same time, Bird said she could not blame the mother of a murdered child for making a campaign television commercial calling for the defeat of the chief justice.
Bird was referring to Marianne Frazier, whose 12-year-old daughter was murdered by a man whose conviction and death penalty were overturned in 1984 by the Supreme Court.
The defendant, who remained in custody, was retried, convicted a second time and received the death penalty again. The Supreme Court has yet to review his latest conviction.
"I have nothing but compassion for her," Bird said of Frazier. "If she can in some way feel better about and release some of the anger and some of the grief she has by opposing me, I can't say that that's wrong. It's not helpful. It makes it tougher. But I can't say anything critical about it."
But Bird was critical of the commercial's message, which says that a vote against Bird, Reynoso and Grodin is a vote to prevent other killers from escaping justice.
Bird said the commercial implies that if she and her two colleagues are voted out of office, their replacements will be sure to affirm death sentences regardless of what the law tells them to do in each case.
'Regardless of the Rules'
"Say there are all new justices and a case before the court with an error in it. What do they do? Follow the rule of law? No. They're not supposed to do that. . . . They've been mandated to affirm every single case that comes before the court regardless of the law, regardless of the Constitution, regardless of the rules."