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3 New Justices of State High Court Sworn In

March 19, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

Three new members of the California Supreme Court were confirmed and sworn into office Wednesday, replacing the justices rejected by the voters last November and forming a conservative majority on a court that has been dominated by liberals for nearly three decades.

The historic transformation came at the end of a daylong hearing where the three-member state Judicial Performance Commission unanimously approved Gov. George Deukmejian's nominations to the high court of state Appellate Justices John A. Arguelles of Irvine, David N. Eagleson of Long Beach and Marcus M. Kaufman of San Bernardino.

The new associate justices fill vacancies created after a bitterly contested election campaign that resulted in the ouster of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin.

Only Kaufman, the most controversial of the three nominees, encountered significant opposition during the six hours of proceedings in the justices' Los Angeles courtroom.

Leaders of two groups--the National Organization for Women and People for the American Way--reiterated charges they made earlier this week that a review of Kaufman's judicial record indicated hostility toward state anti-discrimination laws and insensitivity to the rights of women.

However, an array of witnesses--including judges, lawyers and family friends--testified to Kaufman's lack of prejudice and gave him high praise for his intelligence, productivity and concern for others. And Kaufman, himself, answering questions before the commission, strongly denied the charges of bias.

"I have no insensitivity . . . to women's issues or any racial groups or any persons by virtue of their status in life, background or anything of that nature," he said.

Qualified to Serve

James D. Ward, a Riverside attorney who chairs a State Bar commission that makes non-binding recommendations of judicial candidates, testified that his group had found Kaufman qualified to serve "with distinction" on the high court.

Ward, responding to other charges against Kaufman, said the Bar commission's investigation had concluded that allegations that Kaufman was biased in favor of growers or other employers were "unfounded."

Both Arguelles and Eagleson, in response to questions by the commission, said they had made no commitment to the governor--a harsh critic of the old court--on how they would rule in future cases. But Kaufman, while stating a strong belief in adhering to court precedents, told reporters after the hearing he expected that the new court would be less inclined to reverse death sentences when there was little possibility of a lesser penalty upon retrial.

"I suspect there will be a tendency to really assess whether an error was prejudicial," he said. "I'm not sure that that has always been adhered to in the past."

Death Penalty Primary Issue

The death penalty was the primary issue in the campaign against the three defeated justices. Since capital punishment was restored in California in 1977, the court has reversed death sentences in 64 of the 68 capital cases it has reviewed.

Arguelles, Eagleson and Kaufman took the oath of office from Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, who served on the appointments commission with state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and state Appellate Justice Lester W. Roth of Los Angeles, senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal.

Arguelles, whose nomination was considered first during the hearings, was approved after drawing support from several witnesses, including other judges.

Ward said the Bar commission had found in a survey of members of the California legal community that Arguelles was rated highly for judicial competence and temperament.

Arguelles had shown "superior fitness" to serve on the court, Ward said. "Isolated criticism" that the nominee was excessively "pro-prosecution" was not substantiated, he said.

Talked With Governor

Replying to questions from Van de Kamp, Arguelles said he had spoken to Deukmejian before his nomination but "at no time discussed whether I had an agenda for the Supreme Court" or how he might rule on issues that go before the justices.

In a brief statement after his confirmation, Arguelles pledged to "make every effort to represent all Californians without favoritism for or bias against any political, religious or ethnic groups."

Eagleson, like Arguelles, drew support from fellow judges. He acknowledged that he had spoken to the governor before he was nominated to the high court, but he said he had not discussed how he would rule in any cases before the court.

In a previously completed questionnaire that was released at the hearing, Eagleson said he had "no hidden agenda or conscious ideologic predilection" toward serving on the court.

Ward said that the State Bar commission's survey of the legal community indicated that Eagleson possessed "legendary skills" as an administrator, while receiving some criticism for occasionally displaying a "short temper" as a judge.

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