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Rose Bird Honored by ACLU

Law: Former chief justice accepts award as supporters lament her low profile on the public stage.

April 03, 1998|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rose Elizabeth Bird, rarely seen in public since being ousted from the California Supreme Court more than a decade ago, temporarily abandoned her reclusiveness Thursday to be honored by 200 loyal fans.

Much of the state treated Bird as a pariah in 1986 when the electorate--upset by her anti-death penalty rulings--voted the chief justice and two high court colleagues out of office.

But those harsh memories evaporated Thursday when Bird, who served on the court from 1977 to 1987, came to the downtown Westin Bonaventure to receive the American Civil Liberties Union's Conscience Award.

There were hugs from longtime friends, pictures with admirers and a standing ovation that rocked the hotel as Bird and four others were honored by the ACLU's Southern California chapter.

"She has paid deeply for her conscience," said the chapter's executive director, Ramona Ripston.

"It's very nice to see a lot of old friends," Bird, 61, said in a brief interview. "I think we are going to have a lot of challenges in the years to come." Bird, who has survived a long battle with breast cancer, carefully guards her privacy.

Before her ouster, liberals hailed her as a champion of equal rights, the first woman to serve on the state's high court. But that tenure was ended by intense criticism of the court's reversal of death penalty verdicts and its opinions against the rights of corporations.

Those who came to honor her Thursday were intent on showing Bird she had not been forgotten.

"She is certainly one of the great figures in California history on issues of equality in society," said Mike Farrell, an actor and outspoken human rights activist.

Bird no longer practices law. She won't discuss the specifics of what she does, only saying she volunteers with community groups near Palo Alto, where she lives.

Some of those who know her said Thursday that they would like to see Bird play a greater role in society, particularly in the education of young people.

"She is an outstanding scholar who champions the rights of the underprivileged," said Irving Lichtenstein, founding chairman of the ACLU of Southern California.

"I think it's pathetic that academic circles do not recognize Rose Bird for the legal mind and inspiration she could have on young people," said screenwriter Bo Goldman.

When a reporter posed that question to her, she quickly replied: "You have to be asked."

At the luncheon, she warned that conservatives are using criminal laws to effect political change, citing independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton. Because of tactics like Starr's, "the ACLU will have a lot of new lawsuits" to fight, she said.

Other honorees were attorneys Stanley Fleishman, Vilma Martinez and Patricia Phillips and Stanford law professor Kathleen M. Sullivan.

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