SAN FRANCISCO — When he was sworn in a year ago, Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas said he hoped the California Supreme Court would have a "quiet time to heal itself" after a tumultuous election in which three court members were voted out of office.
Under his tenure so far, however, the court has been far from quiet.
With Lucas writing some of its major decisions, the justices have overturned significant rulings of the court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and charted a clear new philosophical course to the right.
And in his role as administrator, Lucas has ordered a sweeping review of court procedures to try to trim the court's growing backlog of cases and has initiated changes to try to speed the decision-making process.
But the 60-year-old chief justice has also brought a notably different style to the office that does seem to be healing any wounds left within the court. Those who work closest with Lucas say there is a new atmosphere of accessibility, informality and collegiality.
Lucas' wry sense of humor--his "one-liners," as they are known--and an open-door policy have helped relieve tension that insiders say had plagued the court for years.
Conflicts among the justices were dramatically revealed in the unprecedented public hearings of 1979 when the court was investigated by the state Judicial Performance Commission and cleared of allegations that controversial decisions were purposely delayed to help ensure voter confirmation of Bird and other justices.
Afterward, efforts were made to improve relations among court members and staff, but strains existed through the rest of Bird's tenure. Now, say a variety of sources, the court is a happier institution. And much of the credit goes to Lucas.
Where Bird was seen by critics as guarded and inaccessible, the new chief justice solicits advice, welcomes colleagues into his office without invitation and tries to become better acquainted with staff members.
Whereas Bird rankled some by using an aide to deal with court members, the staff and the public, Lucas has won praise for dealing directly with court personnel and others whenever possible.
Justices and staffers alike decline to publicly compare Lucas and Bird, not wishing to refuel the controversy over Bird that her friends and foes agree brought the court under political siege and damaged its reputation. But there is little hesitation to praise the new chief justice.
The court's senior member, Justice Stanley Mosk, said of Lucas: "From the point of view of collegiality, his administration this past year has been excellent. He's pleasant to work with and takes suggestions on administration very readily."
Mosk, a generally liberal justice who has been on the court since 1964, has often found himself in disagreement with the conservative Lucas in the court's rulings.
On Monday, for example, Lucas wrote the majority opinion when the court set aside a milestone ruling by Mosk in 1976 that barred any use of illegally obtained statements from criminal defendants.
Mosk noted that there are bound to be disagreements within any court and said that under Lucas legal issues are discussed without rancor.
"Things are debated with total civility and objectivity, without any injection of personality in any way," he said. As for Lucas, Mosk added, "It's a pleasure to disagree with him."
Justice David N. Eagleson, one of three appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian who joined the court last March, observed: "He's just what this court and this state needed."
Justice John A. Arguelles, a newcomer to the court but a longtime acquaintance of Lucas, said he has never seen the chief justice in ill humor. "He's even civil during the week of the Trojan-Bruin football game," said Arguelles, a UCLA graduate, of USC alumnus Lucas.
Quick to Offer Help
On a more serious note, Justice Marcus M. Kaufman recalled how Lucas quickly made himself available to assist Kaufman last summer when he underwent surgery for colon cancer--the same malady the chief justice suffered earlier in the year.
"His door is always open," Kaufman said. "When I had my illness, we talked several times at moderate length. He'd just been through the same thing, and it was greatly important to me."
Lucas undergoes periodic checkups and, according to a court spokeswoman, has suffered no recurrence of cancer. Kaufman also appears fully recovered and said he has resumed playing tennis.
Court staff members, whatever their feelings about Bird, acknowledge that Lucas has brought a markedly different style to the office of chief justice.
"Contrary to her image, Bird could be very charming and very charismatic and very funny in her own way," one aide said. "But, deserved or not, she had a reputation for 'hiding out' in her office . . . and a lot of people here didn't get to see much of her.
"Lucas is much more at ease. The best thing about him is that he frequently comes out of his office and talks to people. You get to see him more."