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Voters Repudiate 3 of Court's Liberal Justices

November 05, 1986|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

In a historic rout, the state's voters have repudiated three justices of the California Supreme Court, rejecting Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird overwhelmingly and, by a lesser margins, two other members of the court's liberal majority, Associate Justices Joseph R. Grodin and Cruz Reynoso.

Bird, the first woman to head the state Supreme Court, became the first chief justice in the modern history of the court to be voted out of office.

The defeat of the three justices set the stage for a Republican governor to appoint a majority of the court for the first time since the Great Depression.

Appointed in 1982, Reynoso was the first Latino member of the court.

Three other members of the court who were on the ballot were winning easily. The three, who did not face organized opposition, are Associate Justices Stanley Mosk, Malcolm M. Lucas and Edward A. Panelli.

After nine years in the job, Bird fell victim to a multimillion-dollar campaign that focused on her long record of voting to overturn death sentences. Bird's "box score," as it came to be known, of 61 reversal votes in 61 capital cases became a constant refrain of the campaign against her.

Reynoso, with 46 votes to reverse in 47 cases, seemed safe for awhile, and Grodin with 40 votes to reverse in 45 cases, appeared safer, but a strong television push by opponents during the last month of the campaign kept their names before the voters, insisting that all three justices needed to lose if the death penalty is to be enforced.

The verdict of the voters was clear to Bird an hour and a half after the polls closed and she conceded defeat from the court's Los Angeles office. Opening her remarks on a jaunty note, Bird said:

"Let me first address an issue which was raised with me earlier and a question I suspect was on the minds of some of the press as well: how am I taking this? My answer is, just like a man."

Then, she grew more serious, urging her supporters to continue to fight for the kind of court she said she represented.

"Let me say something to the millions of California voters who voted today to retain the justices on the Supreme Court and who specifically voted for me," she said. "I want to thank you very much because I know you believe very deeply in the ideal of justice and believe it is possible to have it as a reality in this day and age.

"I appreciate that some people within our state are impatient, impatient to see executions, but I say to those who voted for us today, that although my voice will go silent, yours will not. You still can fight for the principles that we stood for in this campaign. You still can fight to ensure that we retain this house of justice. I don't think anybody in this state will sit easy if in fact this becomes a court that ensures nothing but executions to appease the overweening and insatiable appetite of ambitious politicians."

TV Campaign

Although Bird did not raise half the amount of money collected by her opponents, she was able during the closing weeks of the campaign to rival their output of crucial television advertising. But her low-key commercials, stressing the need for a judiciary that can make unpopular decisions in the face of intense political pressure, apparently was no match for the emotional appeals of her opponents.

The hallmark of the campaign against the justices was the somber face of Marianne Frazier, the mother of a murdered 12-year-old girl, sitting beside a framed picture of her daughter and asking voters to defeat the three justices who had voted to overturn the killer's death sentence.

Bill Roberts, the veteran political consultant who helped mastermind the campaign against the justices, attributed Bird's loss to a widespread dissatisfaction with the judiciary that is especially acute when it comes to criminal justice.

"The public is very unhappy with the judicial system generally," Roberts said.

"Too much attention has been paid to the needs of the criminals and not enough consideration has been given to victims and the general public."

Period of Stability

Roberts also said he hoped that the governor would appoint another woman to replace Bird and a Latino to replace Reynoso. Although Bird narrowly escaped losing in 1978, the last time she was on the ballot, her defeat Tuesday, coupled with the ouster of Reynoso and Grodin, signals the end of a long period of political stability for the court. The defeat of three of the court's five liberals could also mark the end of a judicial era in which the California court gained a national reputation for its decisions upholding the Constitutional rights of criminal defendants and expanding the rights of injured consumers to sue for damages.

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