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Bird's Legacy More Political Than Legal

December 06, 1999|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

"Rose Bird was a hard-working, dedicated public servant and jurist," Davis said after learning of her death. "While we didn't always agree, I greatly admired her personal integrity and resolve."

'A Symbol of Courage'

Bird's consistent rulings against death sentences stemmed from her uncompromising nature and courage, her friends said.

"Rose was just so pure, so good, so principled, and you don't function very well in the political world that way," said U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt. "The judicial world is a political world as well."

Her refusal to bend made her "difficult" for many people to deal with, Reinhardt conceded. After her defeat, she isolated herself from many former friends and seemed to become more distrustful. She was what Reinhardt called "snake-bitten."

Bird was the first woman ever to serve on the state's high court, the only female chief justice and the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in Sacramento.

Her impact on women in the law continues to be felt today. She spoke out about the need for more female and minority judges and created the court's first committee to address gender discrimination.

It has since been expanded to examine racial and other kinds of prejudice in the courts. Today, three of the seven justices on the state Supreme Court are women.

"There are still a lot of people who look to her as a symbol of courage and idealism in doing the right thing and what you believe in regardless of the consequences," Reinhardt said. "There are lots of women and young people who think she symbolized independence."

Justice Joyce Kennard, a Republican named to the high court by former Gov. George Deukmejian, recalls how touched she was when she received a note from Bird congratulating her on her appointment.

Kennard, the second woman to serve on the court, did not know Bird at the time but became friends with her. Bird tried to keep the relationship secret for fear that Kennard might be hurt politically by it.

After reading Bird's note, "I couldn't help but think of the agony and pain she must have suffered when just a few years earlier the electorate voted her out of office," Kennard said Sunday.

"Yet she took the time to welcome me to the court, to wish me well. I wrote back, thanking her for her thoughtfulness."

When former California Supreme Court Justice Allen E. Broussard died in November 1996, Bird drove from Palo Alto to Oakland for his memorial service "even though the day before she had just undergone a mastectomy," Kennard said.

"That was the kind of person she was."

Bird's philosophy stemmed from her personal upbringing, said Justice Kline. Her father deserted her and her two older brothers when she was 5. He died shortly thereafter, and Anne Bird moved her children from Arizona to New York, where she supported her family with a factory job.

In later years, Bird was a constant companion to her mother, and the two shared Bird's Palo Alto home until the elder woman's death several years ago.

"Rose went to work young, was a legal secretary before she went to law school and she identified with the powerless in our society, women, minorities," Kline said. "She was so resolute in trying to protect their interests that she often came across as too uncompromising."

Chief Justice George called Bird a "trailblazer" and said the court will hold a memorial for her. "As a jurist," George said, "she was a strong and eloquent advocate for her views."

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The Rose Bird obituary is available on The Times' Web site:

http://www.latimes.com/rosebird

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