California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose E. Bird, for years one of the most controversial state jurists in the country, has become the target of a broad-based political campaign to remake the state's high court within two years.
So much attention has focused in recent months on the 48-year-old jurist that her scheduled confirmation vote in 1986 could well eclipse the elections that year for governor and U.S. senator.
Bird and other Democratic Party appointees have so consistently reversed death-penalty verdicts and ruled against prosecutors that a victims' group -- with strong support from district attorneys, Republican officeholders and police -- is trying to raise $1.5 million to unseat her. On-duty sheriff's deputies in San Diego began distributing postcards last week asking Bird to resign.
Bird's supporters, organized under the Committee to Conserve the Courts, have called the campaign a partisan attempt to politicize the court system. The group has raised more than $200,000 to fight back.
Responding to suggestions that Bird might save other liberals on the seven-member court by stepping down voluntarily, her designated personal spokesman, former state bar president Anthony Murray, said, "She is absolutely not going to resign."
In Virginia, only the legislature votes on high court justices, and Rhode Island justices, like U.S. Supreme Court justices, may serve for life. Nearly all other states elect justices by popular ballot.
The 1986 confirmation votes for Bird, three other Democratic appointees and a Republican pose a major hurdle for a woman who probably generates more anger among conservatives than any public figure in the state. She has drawn attention as the only female chief justice in the country and for her lack of experience at the time of her 1977 appointment by then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. Bird, the state's agriculture secretary at the time, had never been a judge and had practiced law only 11 years.
Although several petition drives to force her recall have failed, she was confirmed in 1978 by less than 52 percent of the vote. State Sen. H.L. Richardson, a leading GOP money raiser, has said she will be in "deep trouble" in 1986. The state's leading Republicans, Gov. George Deukmejian and U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, have said they will vote to unseat her. A mail poll of the California District Attorneys Association produced a record 1,000 responses, 93.5 percent of which opposed her confirmation for a 12-year term.
Crime Victims for Court Reform, organized under the direction of veteran Republican campaign consultant Bill Roberts, said Bird "has politicized the Supreme Court, repeatedly shown a bias in rulings in criminal cases, and severely hurt law enforcement efforts." The group has asked for a 1986 "no" vote on her and fellow Brown appointees Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin. It has launched what it calls its "Bye Bye Birdie" drive to encourage Californians to mail her postcards asking that she resign.
Rep. William E. Dannemeyer and other Orange County Republicans have formed the "California Bird Watchers Society" to trumpet their case against her. Murray, Bird's spokesman, characterized Roberts' committee as "not a victims' group at all," but a device to earn income for his consulting firm, The Dolphin Group, between elections. "He knows he can stir up contributions by attacking the court," Murray said.
Much of the fire at Bird has been generated by her votes to reverse the death penalty in every capital case the court has heard since a revamped death-penalty law took effect eight years ago. Figures compiled by prosecutors show her voting for the defendant in 27 death-penalty cases and in 87 percent of 279 cases, including sexual assaults and other violent crimes.
Murray called these statistics "absolutely meaningless." The Supreme Court, he said, accepts for review only those few cases -- about 5 percent of the total -- where there appears a likelihood that a defendant's rights might have been violated.
A few cases have drawn particular fire from Bird's opponents. Crime Victims for Court Reform provides copies of a summary of People v. Alcala, in which Bird joined a 5-to-1 majority reversing the death-penalty conviction of a man charged with abducting a girl, 12, on her way to a ballet class and brutally murdering her in a remote mountain area.
The court said the trial judge erred in letting jurors hear of a molestation case in which another girl had been severely beaten and "left for dead" by the same man, Orange County Deputy District Attorney Thomas Goethals said. Only nearly identical crimes in the defendant's past can be introduced, the high court said, and this previous case failed to meet the standard because the victim had not died.
Goethals said he will vote against Bird. He said that he sympathizes with people who oppose capital punishment, but that "she has sworn to uphold the constitution," which includes the death-penalty statute.
In a 1983 interview with AirCal magazine, Bird said she is "not an opponent of anything," including the death penalty, and wishes only to ensure that no errors have been made in such serious cases. In the interview, she also said that she had a mastectomy for breast cancer in 1976 and two "recurrences" in 1977 and 1978, but that her health is now "fine."
With her spokesman denying that Bird has any intention of resigning, her opponents suggest that she might do something else to blunt the campaign against court liberals.
Richardson, who has watched her from the days when she served in Brown's cabinet, said "she is quite politically minded. I wouldn't be surprised in the next two years if she found it in her heart to vote for someone to be executed in the state of California."