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State High Court Justice Sworn In Amid Protests

Judiciary: Ming W. Chin is highly praised by legal scholars but opposed by antiabortion groups.

March 02, 1996|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Ming W. Chin, the son of an immigrant potato farmer, was sworn in as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court on Friday after an unusually long and contentious confirmation hearing about his views on abortion.

Legal scholars lavishly praised the moderately conservative Court of Appeal justice when Gov. Pete Wilson nominated him last month, but Chin sparked heavy opposition from antiabortion forces when he told reporters he personally favored "a woman's right to choose."

Chin's unanimous confirmation by a three-member commission here followed more than two hours of testimony and questions about whether his personal views would color his court decisions.

Chin, 53, a slender, youthful-looking jurist wearing round spectacles and a dark blue suit, repeatedly assured the commission they would not. "I certainly would not prejudge any matter that comes before me, regardless of my personal views," he said.

After Wilson swore him in, Chin said: "This will not be a day I will soon forget, for a lot of reasons." The crowd laughed.

"I hope we all learned something," he added. "I know I certainly have, and I am not going to say in public what it is."

Chin, who is not likely to substantially alter the conservative bent of the state high court, divulged his views on abortion after being pressed by reporters during a news conference last month when Wilson appointed him. Chin also said at the time that he supported the death penalty.

He fills a vacancy created by the retirement this week of Associate Justice Armand Arabian. Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas will retire in May, and Associate Justice Ronald George, a Wilson appointee, is expected to be elevated to chief.

For George's seat, Wilson is considering Court of Appeal Justice Janice Brown, an African American who was formerly Wilson's legal affairs secretary, and Los Angeles lawyer Robert C. Bonner, a former U.S. attorney, federal district judge and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Chin, the son of Chinese immigrants, was briefly an Oakland prosecutor and spent several years in a private civil practice before moving to the bench. He won the highest rating possible from a state bar investigative commission.

The Commission on Judicial Appointments, which includes Chief Justice Lucas, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and Court of Appeal Justice Robert K. Puglia, received 23 letters in support of Chin and 42 opposed, including one from 20 state legislators upset about his abortion comment.

Lungren, a strong opponent of abortion rights, said he did not believe in a "litmus test" for judicial candidates and accepted Chin's pledges to decide cases based on the law and the facts. The attorney general noted that Chin's was the longest confirmation hearing he had encountered in six years.

Lucas noted that "we are human beings and it would be very strange" if judges did not have personal views. He said there was nothing in Chin's history as a Court of Appeal justice or, previously, as an Alameda County Superior Court judge, showing that he allowed personal views to influence his rulings.

Puglia asked Chin what sources he would consider if asked to decide an abortion case. Chin began citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

"How about the Bible?" muttered former Orange County Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, who spoke against Chin on behalf of Californians for America.

Chin, a Roman Catholic, heard himself denounced by Catholic priests. One member of the clergy said Chin supported "the right to kill" and other witnesses spoke graphically of the torn bodies of terminated fetuses.

"Justice Chin could not be impartial," complained Charlene Poole, a member of an antiabortion group.

Chin's supporters, outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by opposing witnesses, praised his integrity, intelligence and devotion to the law.

"Ming Chin is remarkably talented," said Court of Appeal Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who served on the Court of Appeal here with Chin. "He is extremely bright, indefatigably hard-working, incisive and clear in his analysis."

The genial judge thanked witnesses for coming. He noted that he expressed his abortion views only in response to a question.

"I thought it only appropriate I should give a direct and straightforward answer," he said. "I believe the people of California are entitled to have honest answers to such a question." He added, with a grin, "I could be talked out of that."

Chin was sworn in with his wife, Carol, a pharmacist, at his side and his son and daughter behind him. Several other members of his family also attended.

As Chin was being congratulated, an antiabortion activist shoved a document about abortion at him. "Is it hard to look at that, judge?" the man loudly demanded. "Is it hard to look at that paper?"

Dr. Philip B. Dreisbach, a member of the California Pro-Life Medical Assn., said afterward that he and other abortion opponents were "shocked" that Lungren approved Chin.

Lungren "[wrung] his hands quite a bit up on the stand, and in fact, I think he needed a crying towel," Dreisbach observed. "It's very shameful, very sad."

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