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Justice Prevails : Cruz Reynoso Was Swept Off the State Supreme Court With Rose Bird, but Now He's Found New Causes and a New Career

August 13, 1989|PHILIP HAGER | Philip Hager is a Times staff writer.

THE ATTORNEY moves purposefully to the lectern, preparing to present his case before a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.

"Justice Reynoso, what an honor it is to have you argue before our court," says the presiding judge, smiling down from the bench.

"Well, thank you, Your Honor," the attorney replies, "but on this occasion, I am Mr. Reynoso, rather than Justice Reynoso."

Such exchanges are to be expected these days as Cruz Reynoso, swept out of office in a fiercely contested 1986 election, makes the transition from the California Supreme Court to a new role as lawyer, lecturer and activist.

To be sure, that defeat was a stunning setback for a man who had steadily advanced through his profession, becoming the first Latino to serve on the state high court. His was a judicial tenure that could have lasted decades, but in an unprecedented action, the voters rejected him and two other liberal justices. Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird became a television news commentator; Justice Joseph R. Grodin went back to teaching law, and Reynoso, after 10 years on the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, re-entered the world of the practicing attorney.

Today, the 58-year-old former justice is generally regarded as one of the most prominent Latino lawyers in the state, at the forefront of civil-rights efforts ranging from immigration to integrating law firms. But his defeat remains much on his mind, and, although the wound may not be completely healed, he offers an extensive analysis of the election with surprisingly little bitterness or rancor.

The most important factor in that election, he believes, was Gov. George Deukmejian's decision to oppose him, Bird and Grodin. Deukmejian and other critics were angry with the court's liberal record, especially on the death penalty.

"The state's most important political figure, the governor, (concluded) that it was good for him politically to take on such a campaign," Reynoso says. "That freed up a lot of money for the opposition. They were able to raise several millions of dollars that otherwise would have been difficult to raise."

Those millions played an important role in the election. Like other state appellate or Supreme Court justices, he went before the electorate for approval or rejection, rather than run against an opponent. Because voters are deemed to be more easily persuaded to vote "no" than "yes," Reynoso's advisers told him that it would take three pro-Reynoso campaign ads to counteract one ad by his opponents. But he lacked the money to buy anywhere near that volume of ads. In the end, campaign spending by opponents of the three justices reached about $7 million, while proponents spent only about $4 million.

Reynoso remains concerned about the long-term effects of the campaign. He believes that the traditional independence of the judiciary may have been undermined for years to come.

"What the future holds, we don't know," he says. "But it seems unlikely that the judges who are on the court now won't have in the back of their minds the fact that a political campaign may be launched against them if some powerful group in California becomes unhappy with a ruling they make.

"I don't feel bitter," Reynoso says. "I never took the matter personally. The voters didn't really know who I was. All they knew is what the TV spots said about me . . . and you can't blame them when the governor of the state, who is a lawyer, says the justices aren't following the law. If I didn't know better, I would have voted against me, too."

But that didn't blunt the sting of losing. Robert L. Gnaizda, an attorney with Public Advocates Inc. of San Francisco, a longtime friend of Reynoso, observes: "I think he was disappointed most in the election because he felt that if the voters had judged him by his record alone, they would never have voted him down. He loved being a Supreme Court justice because it suited his aspirations, temperament and intellect. He has always been a contemplative person--an activist, but always in a contemplative way. . . . But one of the great qualities about Cruz is that he has no streak of meanness or vengeance."

Fate certainly played a part in Reynoso's ouster. His term coincided with Bird's, placing him on the ballot with one of the most controversial figures in recent California history. Had he come before the voters in some other election, he might have escaped defeat, as he did when he first went on the ballot in 1982 and won confirmation along with three other court members.

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