California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, in her first appearance before a commission that is probing the ethical conduct of the state supreme court, said today that she and other justices had been unfairly criticized because "faceless, nameless and anonymous" accusers had given inaccurate information to the Los Angeles Times.
"We're basically here because a very powerful newspaper was told by so-called informed sources that the Supreme Court had overturned the 'use a gun, go to prison' law and that it was sitting on Justice [MATHEW O.] Tobriner's desk, ready to go and ready to be filed on election day," Bird said.
On that election day, Nov. 7, 1978, the Los Angeles Times quoted "Well-placed court sources" as saying that the controversial decision was being stalled by Trobriner, a one-time democratic political figure whom Bird today described as her "senior adviser" on the court.
With the editorial backing of most of the state's newspapers, including the times, Bird survived asometimes-virulent challenge under california's unusual law requiring voter confirmation of supreme court justices.
In December, the court issued a 4-to-3 majority opinion, written by Tobriner, invalidating a portion of the state law requiring prison sentences for persons using a gun in commission of various crimes.Subsequently, Justice Stanely Mosk reversed himself, and the court issued a new 4-to-3 decision upholding the law.
Bird's emotionally charged appearance before the california commission on judicial performance provided a vivid glimpse into the strong-willed personality of a Justice who has been a storm center ever since Gov.Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. plucked her from his cabinet and made her the first woman Supreme Court Justice in California history.
Taking advantage of a friendly question from a commission supporter, Bird made a long speech challenging the wisdom of an extneded investagation into what she called "the most fragile branch" of government.
Since her appointment of the bench two years ago, Bird has overhauled judicial machinery that had been untouched in many years, in some cases naming close friends to key positions. She also has departed from the practice of her immediate predecessors by making herself generally inaccessible to the press.
the campaign against Bird last year originated with convesvatives who maintained that some of her opinions were overlu lenient to criminal defendants. But it was aided by what some of Bird's supporters call a "goodole boy" network of well-connected lawyers who resent her administrative changes.
At one point Bird appeared to irritate special counsel seth m. Hufstedler for declining to answer a question directly about whether she thought it appropriate to speed up the final decision in a case in which the court decided that it is unconstitutional fot a lighted cross to be displayed on Los Angeles city hall during the Christmas and Easter holidays.
The testimony about this case, known as fox vs. ths city of Los Angeles, revealed some of the deep personal animosities that permeatethe Bird court.
The court first heard this case on Oct. 3, 1977. Whenit was still undecided a year later, Bird said that Justice Mosk became"very upset," and said that the court should issue its opinion promptlyrather than offend people by making its ruling at Christmas.
"You don't shoot Santa Clause on Christmas," Mosk was quoted as saying in earliertestimony.
Bird said she told Mosk that the opinion would be issued when it was ready, and said she "added fuel" to the controversy by remarking to the veteran Jusitce that they should discuss the issue "like mature adults."
In fact, the decision was issued on Dec. 15, 1978, 10 days before christmas and 14 months after the hearing.