MONTEREY — State Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp on Saturday criticized California Supreme Court rulings limiting legal rights in civil cases and warned that the justices eventually could face voter rebellion like their predecessors in 1986.
Van de Kamp's remarks, made before delegates to the annual convention of the State Bar, represented his first such criticism of the court since a conservative majority gained power after the defeat of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other liberal court members four years ago.
"Once the nation's leading court in development of civil law, in recent years the court has stopped dead in the water and even appears to be reversing course," he said.
"It is far too soon to panic," the attorney general said. "But I would remind the current justices of the hard lesson their predecessors learned at the polls: A court that retreats from the world around it treads on dangerous ground."
In 1986, Bird and Justices Joseph R. Grodin and Cruz Reynoso were the targets of heavy political attack because of their record on the death penalty.
In his speech, Van de Kamp cited rulings by the new court under Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas limiting the liability of employers and insurers. The justices, he said, had often moved to restrict the legal rights of victims--such as "those unfairly fired from their jobs and those exploited by predatory insurance practices."
In 1988, the Lucas court barred workers from collecting potentially sizable punitive damages for wrongful discharge. In another case, the justices prohibited accident victims from suing insurance companies after denial of a claim.
Van de Kamp, an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in June, told reporters after his speech that he did not seek--and did not expect--voters to deny confirmation to the five justices expected to be on the November ballot.
"I don't see a tremendous resentment of this court, nor should there be," he said. "I'm merely raising a warning flag."
Van de Kamp credited the new court for being "properly conscious" of the need to restore its credibility and conceded its heavy death penalty backlog left relatively little time for civil matters.
He told reporters there were some indications that in its rulings limiting civil suits, the court was "more concerned with its workload than the substance or merits of the cases."
"We have to remember that courts gain respect by the credibility of their judgments and that courts that tend to go off the deep end either way can find themselves in disrepute," he said.
Two justices attending the Bar convention told reporters after the speech that they made their decisions solely on the merits of the cases and without concern for whether they would be confirmed by voters.
"What the electorate wants to do in 1990, it will do, " said Justice Edward A. Panelli. "We have no hidden agenda. We decide cases as we see them."
Responding to Van de Kamp's reference to a philosophical shift in course, Justice Armand Arabian said, "To view our work solely as a shifting of the pendulum is totally inaccurate." As for the coming election, Arabian said, "I am in a state of absolute calm."
In all, five appointees of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian may be on the ballot. Lucas and Justices Panelli, Arabian and Joyce L. Kennard already are facing confirmation by voters. The governor's most recent nominee to the high court, Appellate Justice Marvin R. Baxter of Fresno, will be on the ballot if confirmed by the state Judicial Appointments Commission on Tuesday.
Van de Kamp, concluding eight years in office, sharply criticized the court system for the failure to implement the state's death penalty law. California reinstated capital punishment in 1977. While more than 200 convicted murderers have since been sentenced to death, their appeals remain in state and federal courts and none has been executed.