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State Supreme Court Beyond Public Influence, Lucas Says

May 27, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite the voters' unprecedented rejection last fall of three of its members, the California Supreme Court will not be influenced by "elections or polls or anything else," Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas said in a newly published interview.

"What happened to us last year was analogous to a 100-year flood--a very unusual circumstance, which I do not anticipate happening again," Lucas said in remarks printed in the June issue of California Lawyer, a publication of the State Bar. " . . . I look for a much more tranquil period ahead."

Lucas' statements contrasted sharply with fears expressed by some legal authorities that the acrimonious campaign--resulting in the defeat of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices--would undermine the court's independence and that the justices now might try to tailor their decisions to suit the electorate.

Lucas made a wry reference to a widely quoted observation by former Justice Otto M. Kaus, who, in announcing his retirement in 1985, voiced concern over the politically charged atmosphere surrounding the court.

Asked about the influence of the electorate on the justices, Lucas said:

"Justice Kaus once said that we should ignore the election, but it's a little like ignoring the alligator in the bathtub. . . . My thought, however, is that we've taken the alligator out of the bathtub and made alligator shoes out of it.

"I don't think our court is considering elections or polls or anything else that is happening in terms of our day-to-day activities and decisions," he said.

Lucas, a federal judge who joined the court in 1984 and was elevated to chief justice by Gov. George Deukmejian to replace Bird earlier this year, was interviewed by editors of the magazine and his remarks were published in question-and-answer form. Until now, he had answered questions from groups of reporters but refused requests for formal interviews.

Reiterating a position he has taken in court dissents, Lucas said the justices should consider reversing a controversial 1983 ruling requiring that a jury must find that the defendant intended to kill his victim before it can impose the death penalty.

State prosecutors say the decision, unless reversed, could force scores of retrials of capital cases. The justices are reconsidering that decision, along with six other criminal rulings made in the last days of the court under Bird.

Lucas indicated that the new, more conservative court, now containing a majority of Deukmejian appointees, would use restraint in reconsidering past rulings by the Bird court.

"I think that any decision--speaking now not about (the 1983 ruling)--where we see that the application of the decision is causing serious societal problems or jurisprudential problems, then I think it's our duty to re-examine that with a critical eye," he said.

"That's not to say that we would re-examine anything we might philosophically disagree with. . . . That would be totally inappropriate."

Lucas said he saw "no mandate" from the voters to see that inmates on Death Row are executed.

He declined to discuss whether the new court was "aware" of public sentiment in support of the death penalty, which was widely regarded as the key factor in the voters' rejection of the three justices last fall.

But he did say that all courts--including the U.S. Supreme Court--should have "an understanding of the feel of the nation."

"When you're talking about broad principles, and we occasionally get into policy matters, it seems appropriate at least to have some background understanding of the acceptability of your rulings with the nation as a whole, and in our case with the state as a whole," he said.

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