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Bird Calls Opposition's Attack 'Mean-Spirited'

November 06, 1986|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

The day after her landslide defeat, Rose Elizabeth Bird said she plans to write a book that will discuss her nine-year career as California's first woman chief justice and the first chief justice in 50 years to be voted out of office.

Speaking on a KCBS-TV talk show Wednesday afternoon, Bird described the campaign that led to her defeat and that of Associate Justices Joseph R. Grodin and Cruz Reynoso as "mean-spirited" and "destructive."

And she said Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's opposition to her and the other justices was the deciding influence in the election.

"For the first time since 1934 in California, we now have partisan politics governing who is going to sit on the Supreme Court because the results in the races (of the justices) were almost the same as the vote for governor (in his reelection victory), and the governor essentially said, 'I would like to have these people removed and I would like to make their appointments.' "

While Bird was giving her interpretation of the election, and discussing her plans for the book, others involved in the election were saying that Bird bears a large share of responsibility for the demise of the court's liberal majority, which lost three of its five members.

The view is not universally held, with many people believing that the death penalty issue was so great and the opposition so skillful that the election result was unavoidable.

'Death Penalty Election'

"It was a death penalty election. That was the overwhelming, predominant factor. I'm not sure anything could have been done differently to avoid the outcome," said Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher, one of several prominent supporters of the justices.

But supporters of Grodin, who was given the best chance for reelection, sounded particularly bitter toward Bird on Wednesday, arguing that her judgments on the bench and on the campaign trail hurt Grodin and Reynoso.

"To this day I don't think she understands the damage she did to the court by the way she conducted herself as a judge and the way she communicated with the public," said George Kieffer, a Los Angeles lawyer and Southern California coordinator for Grodin's campaign.

"She claimed to be depoliticizing the court, but everything she did had the opposite effect. Her concurring and dissenting opinions were always a little farther out than those of the other liberals. Her attacks on the governor debased the campaign, and people's reaction to it all just washed over the other two justices."

David Townsend, a political consultant hired by Grodin, said Bird should have quit the court in an effort to spare her colleagues the political fallout she brought down on all of them.

"The way the polls were going, the noble thing would have been for the chief justice to step down for the sake of Grodin and Reynoso," he said.

Neil Rincover, Reynoso's campaign manager, took a more charitable view of the chief justice's role and refused to blame her for the defeat of the justices.

"She didn't start the fight. She took the high road all the way. It was the politicians who discovered the usefulness of court-bashing that are to blame for what happened to the court," Rincover said.

Reynoso's Statement

Neither Grodin nor Reynoso was available to talk about the election Wednesday, although Reynoso released a brief statement thanking the people of California "for the chance to serve over a decade as an associate justice of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court."

Reynoso, the first Latino member of the court, lost by a margin of 20 percentage points, compared to losing margins of 14 points for Grodin and 32 points for Bird.

A Los Angeles Times exit poll showed that 49% of Latino voters said they supported Reynoso and 39% indicated they voted against him, with 12% saying they did not vote in that race.

Los Angeles attorney Vilma Martinez, a former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund who served as Reynoso's campaign treasurer, said Wednesday that she did not see much evidence of racism in Reynoso's defeat.

"I think there are some signs of it. After all, he did lose by a few more points than Grodin. But I think the primary reason for the defeat of all of them was the death penalty issue," Martinez said.

She added, however, that Reynoso's defeat represented the loss of an important symbol to the Mexican-American community.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre also said he does not think race was the deciding factor in Reynoso's loss, that it was, rather, the link with Bird.

"I think it was racial, but it was mainly a matter of being caught in the Bird court, along with Grodin," Alatorre said.

"It's a real sad commentary," Alatorre said, "because I don't think you could find a more honest, or a more thoughtful judge than Cruz Reynoso."

It had been apparent since June, when opposition groups announced their intent to concentrate more on the two associate justices, that Grodin and Reynoso were concerned about getting caught up in the momentum of the anti-Bird movement.

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