The professionally lit photograph of the tousle-haired blonde might have drawn mild interest in a Hollywood casting office. On the news desks of California's major newspapers, it created a sensation.
For this was not a photograph of a new television star, but of Rose Elizabeth Bird, chief justice of the California Supreme Court. The glossy studio shot provided by her office and rushed into print all over the state is the latest oddity in a judicial campaign the likes of which this state has never seen.
With a year to go before she must face the voters for a new 12-year term, the 48-year-old jurist's political organization, the Committee to Conserve the Courts, has raised more than $450,000 in an effort to save her job. Mostly because of her votes to void every death sentence she has considered, her court -- one of the most liberal and innovative in the country -- is threatened with near-total turnover in its membership of seven.
The media-charged social and political controversies of mid-20th-century America have taken their toll on state judges across the country. Of the 33 who have failed to win uncontested retention elections since 1934, 32 were ousted after 1960.
But no California Supreme Court justice has lost a reconfirmation vote, and despite what appear to be strong odds against her, this state's first female chief justice has made clear that she will not leave without a dogged attempt to best her well-financed opposition.
She complained to a Unitarian church audience recently about the growing power of instant communications that make "possible a new type of lynch-mob approach to unpopular figures in our society."
Society, she said, "demands instant answers to the most complex problems and is willing to implement startlingly radical ideas after little or no reflection."
Those same modern communications systems have allowed the several groups organized against her to raise more than $1.4 million so far and keep state mass-mailing services humming with more anti-Bird invective.
"Charles Alan Green killed his wife in 1977," began a mass mailing from a veteran Bird foe, state Assemblyman Don Sebastiani, for a group called the Family Coalition of California. "Three years later the California Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Bird saved his life."
A news release from another group, Crime Victims for Court Reform, organized by veteran Republican campaign consultant Bill Roberts, noted the latest Supreme Court reversal of a death penalty for a man who murdered a witness in a burglary case. The majority, including Bird, ruled that the death penalty could be applied only in the murder of a witness to an adult crime; the burglar in this case was a juvenile.
"This reasoning and the result are utterly ludicrous," said Kern County District Attorney Edward Jagels. "The Bird court is simply nickel-and-diming the state's death-penalty legislation out of existence."
Bird was a 40-year-old state agriculture and services secretary with no judicial experience when she was appointed chief justice by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. in 1977, and her political and popular support has always been thin. She was confirmed in 1978 with 51.7 percent of the vote, a record low, and has refused to bend to critics of her opinions ordering new trials for criminal suspects she said had been denied due process or convicted on faulty evidence.
A survey of 809 registered voters by Mervin Field's California Poll in early August showed 47 percent against her, 38 percent for her and 15 percent undecided, the only Supreme Court justice with less than majority support in the poll.
In response, Steven M. Glazer, communications director for the Committee to Conserve the Courts, said "the court and the chief justice have suffered through eight years of unprincipled attacks by ambitious politicians who want to politicize the court. When people begin to understand the importance of an independent court free of special-interest influence, the polls will change."
In a speech to the state bar convention last month, Bird pointed out that the appellate courts side with the prosecution in 90 percent of their cases. "Crime is not welcome in California, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply ignoring the facts," she said.
But in a state where voters have consistently supported capital punishment by large margins, Bird's popularity has suffered from her votes to overturn death penalties in 41 consecutive cases. Other liberal justices have joined her to form majorities in 38 of those cases, leaving at least three of the justices -- Joseph Grodin, Cruz Reynoso and Stanley Mosk -- also vulnerable next year.
Gov. George Deukmejian (R) will soon appoint a replacement for one retiring Democratic appointee. If Deukmejian is reelected, Bird defeated and Mosk retires, as he has hinted he might, the court will acquire a Republican-appointed, and presumably conservative, pro-death majority.
Beyond changes in her makeup, hair style and press photos, and an occasional speech, Bird has not campaigned actively, but friends suggest that she will step up efforts next year.
For the moment, she has restricted her media interviews to Vegetarian Times, where she spoke of a diet she began after a 1976 mastectomy and two recurrences of cancer. She eats mainly raw fruits and vegetables, carrot juice and large doses of vitamin C, and meditates a half-hour a day. "I don't eat any sort of meat or fish," she said. "Rarely I eat an egg."
She told reporter Paul Obis: "My own personal feeling . . . is that being a vegetarian makes one much more pacific as a person. I'm not quite sure whether that's psychological or whether in fact there is something psychological involved. But through getting in touch with your inner sea of calm, you also get in touch with nature and with the beauty of all aspects of the planet."