SAN FRANCISCO — For nearly a decade, legal groups representing business, law enforcement and property owners frequently found themselves the losers in major decisions issued by the state Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
But now, with a new court in power, conservative legal forces are on the offensive--buoyed with optimism and determined to overturn or modify rulings they believe were decided wrongly by the liberal-dominated Bird court.
These groups see the new court under Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas as likely to be far more receptive to their contentions, and they are searching for new cases to use to challenge past decisions.
Among other things, they hope to ask the Lucas court to reconsider rulings that gave employees greater ability to bring wrongful-discharge suits, gave political protesters access to privately owned shopping centers, expanded state control over river- and lake-front residential property, curbed the power of the grand jury in criminal cases and limited the prosecution's access to evidence obtained by the defense.
"We feel now there is a window of opportunity," said Edward J. Connor Jr., director of a new project by the Pacific Legal Foundation aimed at overturning decisions that it believes stretched the law to achieve social goals.
"We feel the new court will make a real effort to apply legal principle," Connor said. "The justices will rule on what the law is, rather than what they think the law should be."
Lawyers for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento group supporting law enforcement and victims' rights, also see a new era emerging at the court.
"We think the new court is going to be much more open to upholding victims' rights, public rights and society's rights," said Michael Rushford, the foundation's president. "With the Bird court, those rights didn't exist."
The hopes of conservatives and law enforcement groups grew further last spring when the justices, at the urging of state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, agreed to reconsider six criminal law rulings issued in the final days of the Bird court. Among others, the new court is re-examining a decision that ordered the release on parole of Gregory Ulas Powell, the "Onion Field" killer.
"The very fact that the court granted those rehearings is indicative it may want to reconsider other issues," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Harry B. Sondheim, chair of the appellate committee of the California District Attorneys Assn.
But the new optimism of conservatives may be premature in the view of lawyers for some liberal groups that were often winners before the Bird court.
They warn against drawing too many conclusions from a new court that has issued relatively few decisions since three new justices appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian took office in March. And further, they say, any court must be expected to generally adhere to precedent and overturn past decisions only with great caution.
"I suspect these conservative groups may have greater success with the current court than the one before," said Paul Hoffman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "Certainly, that's what Gov. Deukmejian had in mind when he appointed the new justices.
"But it's really too early to tell," he said. "We have to wait and see what this court does in major cases and how each of the judges reacts. They may just surprise us."
Conservatives have found some encouragement in a speech that Lucas made at a Pacific Legal Foundation luncheon meeting in March, shortly after he was sworn in as the new chief justice.
Lucas told how he had welcomed briefs filed by the foundation when he was sitting as a member of the Bird court, often dissenting on major issues.
He warned his audience not to assume that the new court will "readily overturn or re-examine" past rulings. Those decisions will remain intact until someone brings an appeal raising an issue worthy of reconsideration, he said.
"I suggest therefore that your foundation will continue to play an important role and perhaps an even more useful and appreciated role than ever before in the development and reshaping of the civil and criminal law," he said.
The Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, founded 14 years ago with the aim of protecting private property rights, has a $3.2-million annual budget provided by corporations, other foundations and 19,000 individual donors. Recently it launched an $800,000 fund drive to support a Judicial Responsibility Project, a newly developing litigation and public education program.
The foundation either represents an individual or organization directly in lawsuits or files "friend of the court" briefs in their support. The courts generally welcome such participation as aiding a more thorough examination of the facts and issues in a case--and a well-documented, well-argued brief can prove convincing, legal experts agree.