California's Commission on Judicial Performance opened an unprecedented series of hearings today into allegations that the state's Supreme Court violated judicial ethics by delaying a controversial decision for political reasons.

In a session this morning, commission special counsel Seth M. Hufstedler presented the results of a five-month investigation into the alleged impropriety. The "background report" and Hufstedler's opening statements were confined to outlining largely noncontroversial issues.

The investigation was launched by the eight-member commission last fall after newspaper reports alleging the seven-member Supreme Court delayed release of a decision striking down a law on mandatory prison terms for conviction of using a gun in the commission of a crime.

The alleged delay came at a time when confirmation elections were being held for three justices of the court, including Chief Justice Rose Bird.

Bird in particular was being criticized at the time for her "liberal" rulings on the court, and narrowly won confirmation on Nov. 7 with 51.7 percent of the vote.

The hearings came under fire from Harry Delizonna, an attorney for Bird, who charged the commission had "definitely hampered the preparation of my case" by refusing to allow him to take depositions or present an opening argument.

Of the other six justices, all but one have also agreed to cooperate on the probe. The exception, Justice Frank Newman, "refused to answer under oath most of the substantive questions" asked by the special counsel, citing "judicial privilege not to disclose confidential information," according to the report submitted by Hufstedler.