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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.

And, Reynoso believes, news coverage of the election worked against him. "If I had to give out grades to the news media, they would go all the way from D to F," he says. "They treated it just like any political campaign, always focusing on whether people agreed or disagreed with certain opinions. . . . (The death penalty) should not have been the main issue, but that was the way it was posed by critics of the court, and it was picked up in that fashion by the media."

In his view, reporters failed to convey that the justices should be evaluated not by the popularity of their decisions but by their competence, diligence and integrity.

He says that too much attention was paid to the court's rulings on the death penalty (the Bird court reversed 64 of 68 capital sentences it reviewed), and too often the media gave the impression that convicted killers were being freed, when they were simply granted new trials.

He believes that had he and his two colleagues remained on the bench, the Bird court would be affirming capital cases substantially more often than it had. By now, he says, the major constitutional questions about the law have been resolved and fewer procedural errors are occurring at trial, reducing the prospect for reversals. "Whether it was the (new) court or ours, the number of affirmances would go up," he says.

ON THE high court, Reynoso's opinions often reflected concern for the rights of individuals involved in disputes with government authorities. His opinions were sometimes criticized privately by attorneys for lack of clarity, but he earned respect among many observers for his compassion. For example, he wrote the court's opinion in a case that gave homeowners the precedent-setting right to sue airports for jet noise that presents a "continuing nuisance."

He also wrote the decision that said an unmarried woman, like a spouse, can claim unemployment benefits when she quits her job to accompany the father of her children to another state. In a case that touched his own heritage, Reynoso held for the court that non-English-speaking defendants must be provided with an interpreter through all stages of a criminal case.

"The people of this state, through the clear and express terms of their constitution, require that all persons tried in a California court understand what is happening about them," he wrote. "Who would have it otherwise?"

Since his defeat, he's redirected his concerns in his work for Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, a New York-based, 400-member firm with offices around the world. Reynoso works from the firm's third-floor office in the Old Sacramento section of the capital, but much of the time, he is on his way to or from airports, finding himself on planes an average of nearly once a week.

He remains the cordial and outgoing man he was on the high court, a nonsmoking, nondrinking Baptist whose strongest statements, rendered with a slight Spanish accent, tend to be punctuated with the word golly . He is content to reside with his wife, Jeannene, and four children away from the big city on a 30-acre farm in Herald, 30 minutes by car from Sacramento. He reports with pleasure that, after two busy years, he is finding time once again for farm chores. "I spent a couple of hours irrigating the other day," he says with a laugh. "It was great fun."

As an attorney, he conducts research on complex civil litigation, helps prepare briefs and occasionally argues cases on appeal. Clients have ranged from business people involved in property battles to low-income citizens contesting edicts from welfare officials. He also has served as a mediator in disputes between consenting parties and has testified in court as an expert witness on legal ethics.

Reynoso acknowledges that his years on the bench are useful to him in the courtroom. "After being on the court, you know better how to structure an argument," he says. "You know what areas of law are more likely to concern the judges and what they will focus on in terms of issues."

In a recent case before the state Court of Appeal, he won a decision giving two brothers he represented the right to pursue a lawsuit against a third brother in a dispute over the family's holdings. During argument before the court, he relished the friendly reception he received from the panel but was still concerned that he might lose the case.

"Sometimes, the worst thing you can hear from a court is a compliment on your argument," he said with a smile. "That means they're going to rule against you."

"If I had my druthers, I'd still be on the court," Reynoso says. "But in life, you take what's good and what's bad. And one of the good things now is that I can be active in many matters that a person can't be active in when one is a judge."

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