Behind a facade of judicial order and decorum, the California Supreme Court during the 1978 election campaign became a seething cauldron of fear, suspicion, political hostility and petty jealousy.
This is the central theme to emerge from two weeks of precedent-shattering public hearings into alleged ethical misconduct by the court, which is under a cloud for purportedly holding up controversial decisions until after last November's election.
So far, the investigation by the California Commission on Judicial Performance has proved much less, and revealed much more, than critics have alleged.
While there at at least two more weeks of testimony to come, nothing that has emerged so far has confirmed the accusation by "well-placed court sources" in an election day Los Angeles Times article that decisions were delayed to influence voter confirmtion of controversial Chief justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
On the other hand, testimony before the commission has shattered the court's favorite depiction of itself as a "collegial" body moved only by consideration of law.
For what is probably the first time in America history, the inner passions of a major court have been laid bare for the public. At a time when legal scholars are debating the wisdom of "demystifying" the judiciary, the vanities and prejudices of California Supreme Court justices have been exposed in the most open and painful of ways.
From her own testimony, Bird emerges as a caustic, sometimes abrasive jurist, who freely criticized aides and other justices, including her former law school professor, Frank Newman. When veteran Justice Stanley Mosk prodded the court to produce a long-delayed oinion, she accused him of acting childishly. For months, before the election and after, she suspected conservative Justice William P. Clark of conspiring against her.
Clark, who is scheduled to testify Monday, has been depicted by Bird and senior Justice Matthew Tobriner as a petty and duplicitous adversary who, in a dissenting opinion, made an unjustified and personal reference to a rape case in which Bird had written an unpopular opinion.
Against the backdrop of this Bird-Clark feud, other members of the court indulged their own suspicions and hostilities.
A Bird law clerk, Jeffrey, b. Abramson, suspected Newman of stalling a decision that struck down a longtime Los Angeles practice of putting a lighted cross on City Hall during the Christmas season. Newman, like Bird and two other justices, faced the voters last November.
The decision which the seven-member court took 14 months to issue, came out 10 days before Christmas. In October, before the election, Abramson quoted Mosk as warning that Jewish members of the court "would take the flak" if the opinion came out at Christmastime. Mosk and Tobriner are Jewish.
Curiously, the most damaging testimony against Bird has come from her own clerk, Abramson, who said he listened in "nightmarish disbelief" while Bird critically discussed his legal research before the commission the day before.
Despite her present complaints Bird at the time had used his research and praised him for it, Abramson said. He seemed especially bothered by Bird's attempted to disassociate herself from his speculation that Newman was delaying the Los Angeles cross case.
Visibly nervous, the 32-year-old Abramson testified that Bird had told "a very smart tale made of half cloth," at his expense. He compared her tactics to those of the late senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was notorious in the 1950s for making unfounded accusations against those with little opportunity to defend themselves.
"I was surprised to find that after I'd talked to her so many times about McCarthy and what he did, to find that i could walk blindly into this piece of history and, as a person of no reputation, be swatted against the wall in order to distance herself from whatever she thinks is damaging in my testimony," Abramson said.
Throughout the hearing, both Bird and Tobriner have repeatedly said that they paid little attention to political considerations.
In fact, said Abramson, soon after he was hired last August to do research for Bird, she gave him a New West article titled "Rose Bird and the Politics of Rape" to read so that he could see the attack she was under.
Abramson quoted her as saying that the article attempted to split her off from "her natural allies, namely women's groups." Bird, who appeared privately before newspaper editorial boards throughout California in successful attempts to win endorsements, said publicly last fall and again during the hearings that she was not compaigning for confirmation.
The court's political edginess was deepened by a campaign against Bird so raw that many television stations refused to run the political commercials of an anti-Bird group that depicted her decisions as coddling rapists ad other criminals.
It was in this atmosphere that the court was accused, by Republican gubernatorial candidate Evelle J. Younger, of delaying decisions, including the now celebrated case in which the court temporarily invalidated the state's "use as a gun, go to prison" law.
So far, the commission has been unable to pin down the motivations of the justices and find out why particular decisions took so long. Every justice who has testified has presented a reason for delay that had nothing to do with the election.
What has been exposed instead of ethical misconduct is a siege mentality in which everyone on the court talked about "collegiality" but few practiced it.
In this milieu, everyone was suspect, particularly the press. Bird refused to give interviews or issue press release, saying her decisions spoke for themselves. Sometimes she testified, she vetoed press releases written by other justices because she felt they wanted to continue their "public relations battle " in print.
When a document was leaked last July on a pending Proposition 13 case, Bird issued a sharply worded memo warning that any court employe who breached confidentiality was subject to dismissal and prosecution. One of her concerns about Justice Clark, she said, was that he talked to reporters and "unfairly" told one that the court suffered from an "unprecedented backlog" of cases.
Throughout her testimony, Bird has been critical of press coverage about her and the court. She began her complaints Tuesday by objecting to an election day article in the Times that she said inaccurately represented the court as stalling decisions for political reasons. She concluded her testimony Friday by criticizing a November. 23 article in the Washington Post about the pending probe of the court, contending that the article was "riddled with errors."
She readily conceded in other testimony that the attempt to stop leaks with memos and warnings had been a dismal failure. In fact, she said, the breach-of-confidentiality memo "had the opposite effect."
The court, or at least the chief justice, is still trying to stop the leaks. Bird testified Friday that she had information from her attorney about the unidentified sources of the election day report in the Times.
The attorney, Harry Delizonna, objected on the grounds of attorney-client privilege and prevented disclosure of the sources at Friday's heading. However he said he would not rule out exploring the issue himself later in the proceedings, which are expected to last until mid-July. CAPTION: Picture, ROSE ELIZABETH BIRD . . . emerges as an abrasive jurist