|25th Chief Justice of California|
March 26, 1977 - January 5, 1987
|Malcolm M. Lucas|
Rose Elizabeth Bird
November 2, 1936
near Tucson, Arizona
|Died||December 4, 1999 (aged 63)|
|Alma mater||Long Island University (B.A.)|
UC Berkeley School of Law (J.D.)
Rose Elizabeth Bird (November 2, 1936 - December 4, 1999) served for 10 years as the 25th Chief Justice of California. She was both the first female justice and the first female chief justice of that court. She was appointed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. In the November 1986 state election she became the only Chief Justice in California history to be removed from office by voters.
Bird was born near Tucson, Arizona. Her father was the grandson of immigrants from England and her mother was of Irish ancestry. Her father Harry Bird, after deserting the family, died when she was five. Her mother, Anne (née Walsh), moved with Rose and her two older brothers to New York City, where Bird and her brothers grew up in poverty. She was a standout scholar in high school, winning a scholarship to Long Island University where she earned her bachelor's degree magna cum laude. She later graduated from the UC Berkeley School of Law (also known as Boalt Hall) in 1965.
Bird volunteered with Jerry Brown's campaign for governor, and was considered a trusted advisor. After Brown won the election, he appointed Bird to the position of Secretary of Agriculture. Her career was marked by several firsts: she was the first female law clerk in the Supreme Court of Nevada, the first female deputy public defender in Santa Clara County, the first woman to hold a cabinet-level job in California (as Secretary of Agriculture), the first female Chief Justice of California, and the first Chief Justice to be removed from the Supreme Court of California.
In 1966, Bird joined the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office where, between 1966 and 1974, she held the positions of deputy public defender, senior trial deputy, and chief of the appellate division. In addition to arguing cases before the state's highest court, the Courts of Appeal, and in federal court, Bird also taught at Stanford Law School from 1972 through 1974. In February 1977, Bird was named to the high court justice as Chief Justice, which caused opposition due to her strongly liberal views and lack of judicial experience, as well as questions about her temperament.
Bird's tenure on the Supreme Court was controversial. She was vigorously and publicly attacked by her critics as a rigid ideologue who substituted her personal views over the law and the state constitution. Her consistent opposition to the death penalty was a particular sore point for her critics. She was first up for a retention election in 1978. A campaign was waged against her, to which she did not respond. On election day, it was charged that the court decided to withhold the publication of a controversial ruling until after the 1978 vote. The ensuing controversy generated considerable press coverage but, by then, Bird had been retained by a 52% to 48% margin.
Bird was also controversial among the Associate Justices on her own court. In a 1998 oral history interview, Stanley Mosk explained that Bird was a bright and articulate lawyer, but a terrible administrator (one of the Chief Justice's major responsibilities). He claims she did bizarre things like forcing the Associate Justices to make appointments just to talk to her for any reason.
In 1985, Bird said in some interviews that opposition to her was based on sexism, bigotry, and right wing ideology led by then-US Attorney General Edwin Meese. She stated "These are bully boys. Meese is trying it on the Supreme Court." In fact, Meese had never participated in any of the recall or judicial retention campaigns involving Bird or other members of the California Supreme Court. The statements raised further questions about her partisanship and personal temperament. Even many Democrats later conceded that the remarks backfired on her and other members of the court appointed by Governor Brown.
Bird reviewed a total of 64 capital cases appealed to the court. In each instance she issued a decision overturning the death penalty that had been imposed at trial. She was joined in her decision to overturn by at least three other members of the court in 61 of those cases. She also ruled that the State Constitution required that the state provide free abortions for poor women. In 1982, Bird ruled that the proposed California Proposition 8 (1982), known as The Victims' Bill of Rights, not be allowed on the ballot. A 4-3 majority of the Court allowed it to be voted on. In 1984, Bird and a majority of the court granted the American Federation of Labor's 1984 original petition to block a balanced budget amendment proposition from appearing on the ballot. In addition, the Bird court struck down California's "use a gun, go to jail" law that made a prison term mandatory for any crime in which the use of a gun was involved. These rulings and others led Bird's critics to claim that she was substituting her own personal opinions and ideas for the laws and precedents upon which judicial decisions are supposed to be made. The anti-Bird campaign ran television commercials featuring the relatives of the victims of the murderers whose sentences Bird and her fellow justices Cruz Reynoso, Joseph Grodin, and Allen Broussard had voted to reverse. She was removed in the November 4, 1986 election by a margin of 67% to 33% after a high-profile campaign that cited her categorical opposition to the death penalty. In addition to Bird, Reynoso and Grodin were also voted off the seven-justice California state supreme court bench. Justice Stanley Mosk, who often joined Bird, Reynoso, and Grodin, was not challenged, nor were the other three justices.
Twelve years later, Mosk explained why he was able to stay and Bird was not:
Rose Bird was pilloried because she generally voted to find some defect in death penalty convictions and to reverse them. I probably don't like the death penalty any more than she does. As a matter of fact, I think the death penalty is wrong, that a person has no right to kill, and the state has no right to kill. But the difference is that I took an oath to support the law as it is and not as I might prefer it to be, and therefore, I've written my share of opinions upholding capital judgments.
As a result of the 1986 election, newly reelected Governor George Deukmejian was able to elevate Malcolm M. Lucas to Chief Justice and appoint three new associate justices that more closely matched his generally conservative political convictions, and in turn, the Lucas court moved toward a more "business-friendly" and "pro-law enforcement" judicial philosophy.
Bird was the first and remains the only Chief Justice to be removed from that office by a majority of the state's voters. California justices are selected by the Governor but must be regularly reconfirmed by the electorate. Prior to Bird, no California appellate judge had ever failed such a vote.
Bird appeared as a family court judge in an episode of the 1984-1985 television series Pryor's Place starring Richard Pryor. In 1987, Bird appeared as a judge on a television program called Superior Court (a show somewhat similar to The People's Court, though with scripted trials usually focusing on topical issues).
Bird died on December 4, 1999, at Stanford University Medical Center from complications of breast cancer, which she had fought on and off since 1976. She was 63. The California Public Defender's Association established an award in her honor, as did the California Women Lawyers. New York Law School annually awards one graduating student the Chief Justice Rose E. Bird Award for Motivation in Pursuing Public Interest Law.
Deukmejian claimed all -- especially former Chief Justice Rose Bird -- were soft on crime