A California commission has voted to put the name of a liberal, Hispanic judge on the ballot for state supreme court, setting the stage for an unprecedented clash between the state's law-and-order Republican leaders and its growing Hispanic electorate.
Julio Calderon, president of the Mexican American Political Association, predicted today the campaign against supreme court nominee Cruz Reynoso will be "the most racially oriented campaign in the history of California politics." Republican leaders have called the nomination a serious blow to law enforcement in the state and suggest it will be a key issue in a year in which the nation's most populous state elects both a governor and a U.S. senator.
With almost 20 percent of its population of Spanish origin, California has become the testing ground for the political power of Hispanics, who soon may displace blacks as the nation's largest ethnic minority. But California Hispanics have not been particularly successful in electing candidates to office, and a gubernatorial victory by attorney general George Deukmejian or Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, both Republicans and outspoken opponents of the Reynoso nomination, would be a significant blow to the Hispanic community's ability to influence state policy.
The nomination of Reynoso, a 50-year-old state appellate court judge who once served as director of California Rural Legal Assistance, also adds more fuel to the blazing controversy over politicization of the supreme court, once considered the most influential state bench in the country.
Chief Justice Rose Bird, 45, like Reynoso a nominee of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., has been lambasted publicly by lawyers, other judges and even one of her former law school professors for administrative incompetence and excessive bias in favor of criminal defendants. Her record is expected to be a key element in attacks on Brown during his campaign for the U.S. Senate this year, and in the gubernatorial campaigns of Deukmejian and Curb.
Deukmejian, one of three members of the state's judicial appointments commission, voted against Reynoso's nomination Wednesday after a 3 1/2-hour hearing in San Francisco.
After the hearing, Deukmejian complained that Reynoso "has sided with the defendants and against the prosecution in a very substantial number of cases."
But Bird and Lester W. Roth, the state's 86-year-old senior presiding appellate court judge, voted to approve the nomination, putting Reynoso's name on the November ballot for approval or disapproval by the voters.
Californians have yet to disapprove a supreme court nomination, but Bird was confirmed in 1978 by only 52 percent of the vote, the lowest majority for a supreme court judge in state history.
Calderon accused Republican leaders of resorting to "rhetorical terrorism" in attempting to waylay the Reynoso nomination and to defeat Democrats for state office. He said Deukmejian had been receiving significant support from many California Hispanics, but that support now would go to the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and might win the election for him.
In his public statements, Deukmejian appeared to rely on the strong opposition to Reynoso from the California District Attorneys Association in taking the risk of alienating Hispanic voters. He also repeated a letter filed with the commission from retired appellate court judge George E. Paris, who once served with Reynoso. Paris' statement called Reynoso a "professional Mexican" who championed the causes of "criminals, handicapped, welfare recipients, demonstrators, minorities and miscellaneous other have-nots."
But another retired appeals court judge, Bertram D. Janes, praised Reynoso as a "exceptional" judge with an objective and diligent approach to his work.
Opponents of Reynoso's nomination also pointed to several dissents written by the judge, which they said gave unreasonable leeway to criminal defendants. In one case, Reynoso objected to denying a prisoner good-time credits because he had sexually attacked another prisoner. In another, he objected to allowing a police officer's testimony in a case because the officer had discarded his rough notes after writing a report of a conversation with a juvenile murder defendant.