Public discontent with judicial leniency toward criminals has ignited an unprecedented attempt to purge four of the seven justices of the California Supreme Court, widely considered the most liberal and influential state court in the country.
Republican Party activists have announced plans to raise $400,000 to get out a massive "no" vote in November, when three justices recently appointed by outgoing Democratic Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. come up for approval.
A campaign to recall a fourth Brown appointee, Chief Justice Rose E. Bird, has been endorsed by well-known anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis, injecting partisan politics and voter discontent more deeply into the court's business than ever before.
Hazel Richardson, Santa Barbara County Republican chairman and a leader of the campaign against the three new Brown appointees on the November ballot, described as "absolutely appalling" a recent high court decision removing one basis for the death penalty in the case of a man who had beaten, sodomized and killed a 2-year-old child.
Richardson said some private polls show 50 to 70 percent of voters angered by such decisions. A 56 percent majority vote in June in favor of a "victim's bill of rights" to counter lenient sentences also indicates that the three new justices, Otto Kaus, Cruz Reynoso and Allen E. Broussard, may be in trouble.
The three have so far declined comment, but Bird, whom Republican activists hope to recall in 1983, has mounted an unusual public attack on what she calls an assault on the court from the "radical right."
"Do we want a judiciary that decides issues not as an impartial arbiter but as a sycophant seeking to satisfy the wishes of a powerful few, a strident minority, or a momentary majority?" Bird, 45, a former public defender, said in a recent speech. "It is later than just the 11th hour. It is one minute to midnight, and the bell may be about to toll for judicial independence in this state."
No California Supreme Court justice has ever lost an approval vote, required after each justice takes office and then whenever a justice's 12-year term comes up for renewal. No justice has been recalled.
But Bird barely survived her 1978 approval vote with 51.7 percent "yes" ballots after a concerted campaign to oust her. A series of court decisions knocking down or reducing sentences for individuals charged with particularly grisly crimes since has appeared to strain public patience with the court even further.
Practical political questions have further fueled the campaign against the Brown appointees. After the Supreme Court approved a controversial Democratic reapportionment plan for this year's elections, voters in the June primary rejected the plan.
This made Republicans all the more eager to punish the court, which has only one member appointed by a Republican, for what they insisted all along was a politically inspired decision.
Tony Rackauckas of the Recall Rose Bird Alliance called the reapportionment decision a clear violation of previous precedents, but as a deputy district attorney in Orange County, he said, he is even more upset by the Bird court's criminal case decisions.
"It is 100 percent completely clear that Rose Bird in particular and the other Brown appointees on the court do not wish to approve the death penalty, and they don't give law enforcement a fair hearing on death penalty matters," he said.
The campaigns by Rackauckas' group and Richardson's Californians for Judicial Reform has already turned the year's two leading political races for governor and U.S. Senate toward a provocative debate over the court. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic nominee for governor, supports the Brown appointees and opposes the recall of Bird.
State Attorney General George Deukmejian, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, says Bird has not been bad enough to deserve recall although he has frequently criticized her decisions. Deukmejian has said he will vote against the Brown appointees on the ballot, and has not refrained from bringing up some of the grimmest details of unpopular court decisions in his campaign.
Brown, who appointed five of the court's seven members, has become an obvious target for GOP anger at such decisions. Brown's Republican opponent in the Senate race, San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, has confined himself so far to broad attacks on Brown for appointing allegedly weak judges.