Rose Elizabeth Bird, 63, an embattled California Supreme Court chief justice who became a national symbol of liberal judicial activism before being ousted in a historic 1986 election, died of breast cancer Dec. 4 at Stanford University Medical Center in Stanford, Calif.
She gained national prominence in 1977 when she became chief justice and the first woman to serve on the California Supreme Court. She seemed made for a new age. At 40, she already had become the first woman to serve in a California cabinet. She was undeniably bright (graduating near the top of her law school class) and was fashionably liberal in a state governed by a young Democrat, Jerry Brown, with obvious presidential ambitions.
That fame changed to notoriety by 1986, when she was defeated by California voters, by a 2 to 1 ratio, for retention as chief justice. Her liberal views had become anathema in a state increasingly conservative, and her name became a symbol to some of jurists who were hopelessly soft on crime and whose judicial philosophy had badly failed.
Ms. Bird began her rise to political power as Brown's campaign chauffeur during his first successful run for the governorship in 1974. Brown appointed her to his cabinet as secretary of agriculture. She devoted much of her time to settling a series of farm labor disputes that had plagued the state for years.
After 22 months as agriculture secretary, Ms. Bird was appointed by Brown as chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Her appointment, hailed by liberals, Democrats, women and civil rights groups, also was criticized in many quarters--not only for her liberal politics but also for her lack of experience as a judge.
A young, brilliant and combative jurist, she spent her early days on the court as leader of its increasingly liberal majority. That court strengthened environmental laws, consumer rights and the rights of women and minorities.
But the court was highly divided along political lines that became personal. Ms. Bird added fuel to the flames by such tactics as insisting that an aide be present during any meeting she had with a conservative colleague. She also showed her disdain for the "old boy" system of privilege by such actions as selling the chief justice's Cadillac and insisting on staying at inexpensive motels rather than posh hotels when traveling on state business.
A conservative backlash, fostered by politicians blaming liberal judges for increasing crime, eventually arose. In 1986, she and two fellow justices became the first judges in state history ousted by the voters in a retention election. In this system, residents vote to retain or oust the judge; there are no opposing candidates. Their ouster was assisted by a well-orchestrated, expensive campaign endorsed by a seemingly endless list of prosecutors.
As the highly visible and vocal leader of the liberal wing of the court, she became a campaign issue herself. Her highly touted opposition to the death penalty (she voted to overturn every death sentence that came before the court) resulted in her becoming something of a political pariah. With her defeat, the court became a conservative one under successive Republican governors.
Ms. Bird, who grew up in Arizona and New York, was a graduate of Long Island University. She went to California to attend the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. She was admitted to the California bar in 1966 and became a deputy public defender in Santa Clara County.
In retirement, Ms. Bird became something of a recluse. She lived in Palo Alto, where she gardened, had a dog and cared for an ailing mother, Anne Bird, all on a pension of barely a thousand dollars a month.
She also did volunteer work at a food bank and reading for the blind. She also wrote newspaper columns.
In a 1996 column, she wrote: "If you have never experienced life under a microscope, you need to understand that those who live a public life no longer are seen as real persons--human beings. Rather, they are objects to be examined, manipulated, ridiculed and sometimes even hated."
After her mother died in 1991, she became a full-time volunteer. She appeared one day at an East Palo Alto community law center, telling the receptionist her name but giving no details about herself except that she was available for volunteer work. None of the lawyers in the center recognized her, and she was put to work running a copier.
This went on for several months before a visiting law school dean told the staff that the lady they simply called Rose was the state's former chief justice. When the staff, aghast at their blunder, attempted to give her legal work, she demurred, explaining that she was no longer a licensed attorney in California. Her pension did not allow her the luxury of paying her dues.
She also spent about six months teaching in Australia at the University of Sydney. She also hit the lecture circuit with Robert Bork, the conservative jurist who failed to win confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ms. Bird had first been treated for breast cancer in 1976. The ailment returned in 1996. She underwent a series of operations but refused chemotherapy or radiation, treating herself with a vegetarian diet, vitamins, meditation and stress reduction.
She was a 1997 recipient of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California's Conscience Award.
California Chief Justice Ronald George, upon learning of her death, called Ms. Bird a "trailblazer" who "was a strong and eloquent advocate for her views."
California Gov. Gray Davis (D) hailed her as "a hard-working, dedicated public servant and jurist," adding, "I greatly admired her personal integrity and resolve."
Ms. Bird once said that she wanted to be remembered as "a private person who's a good gardener."
Survivors include two brothers.