When he was governor of California in 1972, Ronald Reagan attempted to discuss a pending case with state Supreme Court Justice Donald R. Wright, according to a new book to be released today. Wright, who was a Reagan appointee, said he cut off the conversation because it was inappropriate.
Wright's account is contained in a new book, "Framed, The New Right Attack on Chief Justice Rose Bird and the Courts," by Betty Medsger, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and a former Washington Post reporter.
Wright, 76, who was chief justice from 1970 to 1977 and is now retired in Pasadena, said in an interview this week that he vividly recalls the luncheon with Reagan because it was the only time in more than 20 years on the bench that anyone tried to discuss a pending case with him.
He said he felt the lunch with Reagan and aides Edwin Meese III and Herbert E. Ellingwood was set up to lobby him on a key legislative reapportionment case. But he said since Reagan wasn't a lawyer "I'm sure he didn't realize it was improper . . . . I wasn't irritated. I was amused. I was surprised that an individual Reagan could be so unaware of how the courts operated."
The legal profession's code of ethics bars any discussion of pending cases outside the normal judicial process and without all the parties involved. It also states that a judge should not "permit others to convey the impression that they are in a special position to influence him."
Wright said that he had no way of knowing whether Meese and Ellingwood, both attorneys, were aware that Reagan was going to raise the reapportionment issue at what he was told was a "get-acquainted" lunch. Reagan "started explaining why he had vetoed the reapportionment bill, how if they had come up with the same plan for the House as the Senate he would have signed it. I had to interrupt. I said, 'Governor, the case if before us right now. I can't discuss it.' "
The luncheon conversation came to abrupt end, he recalled, although Reagan presented him with some cuff links bearing the governor's seal and included a card signed "From Ron to Don." "I still have the cuff links," Wright said.
Meese said Monday that he recalled the luncheon, but "I have no recollection that reapportionment ever came up. None of us would ever discuss a case that was being handled by the court." Neither Reagan nor Ellingwood, now chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, responded to requests for comment.
Told that Meese didn't recall the reapportionment conversation, Wright said, "Well, he's got a very convenient memory."
The reapportionment bill had been passed in 1971 by a Democratic-controlled legislature and vetoed by Reagan. The state Supreme Court reviewed the issue three times between 1972 and 1973. It first told the legislature to redraft the bill and finally appointed special masters to draw up new legislative and congressional district lines.
In her book, Medsger says the incident shows Reagan improperly "seeking to intervene in the judicial process" by trying to tell his appointee how to vote on cases before the court. The book says that Reagan approached Wright on more than one case. But Wright said the reapportionment case was the only one Reagan ever discussed with him and that he didn't consider the approach "improper pressure."
"The second time around I wouldn't have been so generous, but there wasn't any" second time.
Most of the book focuses on the political dispute that split the California Supreme Court in 1978 and 1979, when Rose Bird was chief justice and President Reagan's national security affairs adviser, William P. Clark, was a justice. Medsger's thesis is that Clark participated in a right-wing attack on Bird that included distorted allegations that a ruling striking down the state's "use-a-gun, go-to-jail" law was delayed until after Bird faced the voters in the 1978 elections.
The press release announcing today's publication says that the book indicts Clark "for serious unethical conduct," including telling the governor's staff about pending cases, having someone outside the court write an opinion for him and giving misleading testimony against Bird in 1979 hearings before a judicial performance commission.
Richard C. Morris, who worked for Clark on the court and now on the National Security Council staff, said, "All of those statements are false. His Clark's gut reaction is that she's Medsger doing what he accused her of doing, trying to get him removed on charges that cannot be supported in truth."
Clark declined to comment, saying he had not read the book.
The book quotes Wright as saying that Clark was so inactive in the court's private discussions that "I really don't know what kind of mind he has. It's astounding that you could work with someone for four years and not know whether they can think."
Wright voted against Clark's appointment to the state's highest court in 1973 on the grounds that Clark didn't have the educational or legal background. Wright also was attacked publicly by Reagan at times for his decisions, such as the 1972 case in which the California court outlawed the death penalty.
Wright acknowledged telling Medsger that he couldn't judge Clark's intellect because Clark seldom expressed an opinion. "He was very quiet. He didn't contribute to the conferences. There may have been several reasons. One or two of the justices were extremely brilliant. If they disagreed with him they would jump all over him. It may have been a case of intellectual intimidation," said Wright.
The book's portrait of Clark as unethical appears to be based more on implication than hard fact. For instance, Medsger quotes Wright as saying that he felt Clark got outside help in writing a welfare case dissent, but he couldn't be sure. Wright said he doesn't recall the case.
Medsger quotes Wright as saying he was told by a court employe that Clark often called the governor's office early in the morning and reported on pending cases. Wright said a bailiff did tell him he overheard Clark talking to Reagan, but he wasn't sure it was about court business. "I bawled him the bailiff out. I said, 'It's none of your business who he's talking to.' "