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Rose Bird: The Last Interview

By Sherri Salzman | Feb. 2, 2000

Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2000

Rose Bird: The Last Interview

The late Chief Justice Rose Bird avoided reporters after being pushed off the state Supreme Court in 1986. But right before she died, she had a few things to say about the retention election that ended her career.

The woman across the table at the Palo Alto café was carefully turned out and in good spirits but far too sick to eat. It was September 22, 1999, and Rose Bird-gaunt and unsteady in a blue silk blouse and black pants-looked as if she would die within days. In fact, she lived ten more weeks before losing a long fight with breast cancer.

I had sent her what I thought would be a futile request to run a few things past her in researching an article I was writing for a political magazine. Although I had interviewed her several times during her nine years as California's chief justice, she had guarded her privacy ever since voters refused, 2 to 1, to confirm her for a second term in 1986. The campaign that led to her ouster actually began even before her appointment in 1977. There was serious opposition to confirming her as chief justice because of her work as secretary of agriculture, where she was the first woman to serve in the California cabinet. Later, as the state's first woman chief justice, there were five unsuccessful campaigns to unseat her. Always in the political spotlight, she aroused the passions of millions of Californians. They either hated the former public defender for voting to reverse every death sentence that came her way or they loved her for being the champion of every underdog's rights.

As a result the state Supreme Court, the most distinguished state court in the nation for four decades, became a political football. In the end Bird and two other liberal justices, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, were unseated.

After she left office I heard from Bird from time to time, but she essentially retreated to private life. I was surprised, therefore, by her call when she got my letter in September. "Would you like to meet for lunch?" she asked. We sat down a few days later. She reflected on and theorized about her role in public life, filling in blanks and telling me some things I hadn't heard in covering the court for almost 20 years. She talked mostly about how it all went wrong.

Bird spoke of her reputation for rigidity-insiders took to calling her "the nun"-that started when she was Gov. Jerry Brown's agriculture secretary. Bird realized that in concentrating on policy reforms she had been "very naive" about political realities. "I'm not saying I didn't contribute," she said, "but they painted a picture of me that was accurate in part but not the whole story." As an example of her naiveté Bird referred to the historic compromise she painstakingly negotiated with labor, small farmers, and agribusiness to draft the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. When unveiling the plan before a legislative committee, she announced she would take no amendments from legislators. She was afraid the alliance would unravel if she did, she said. But before the bill could pass she was forced to, and she had offended many powerful people. "A young woman telling veteran legislators they can't change bills is not the way to handle legislation," she admitted.

Bird took less responsibility for what happened on the court. She described it as an institution torn by intrigue when she arrived and characterized herself as "a player who walked in on somebody else's play." Before Jerry Brown became governor, she said, "Reagan's people" expected then-Chief Justice Donald Wright, a Reagan appointee, to retire while Reagan was governor. They planned to elevate Associate Justice Frank Richardson, a Republican. But Wright foiled them by hanging on to the chief's chair until Brown took office, and the new governor picked his agriculture secretary over the more obvious Democratic choice, Associate Justice Stanley Mosk. The result, said Bird, was that she became chief with two of her six colleagues believing they had a better claim to the job. She said they never got over it. She either had forgotten or never knew that Mosk came to speak well of her work.

Everything she did in the early days, Bird said, was seen as a "power grab," including abolishing nepotism in the personnel system and trying to dismantle the central staff, which she called a dangerously "powerful shadow court." And it didn't help her relationship with the state's judges that Brown was going around describing them as overpaid fat cats. "I never was consulted on any of that," said Bird. Far from being Brown's accomplice in such matters, as many assumed, she said she talked to him "maybe ten times total" during her entire tenure as chief justice.

Bird was also a symbol of change that threatened male domination of the courts when the women's rights movement was young. "At judges' meetings, wives would say hello to me, but men didn't know what to call me," she said. "Three-quarters of the battle is looking the part. Nobody knew what a woman justice was supposed to look like."

Bird was among the first to know she would be run out of office. Before she became chief, she said, Brown told her she couldn't stay in power if she alienated three groups: the police, the insurance companies, and the banks. He failed to mention the Republican Party, which she blamed most of all. The Bird Court wasted no time in issuing opinions that angered all these powerful interests.

"I knew I was going to go down, almost from the beginning," she said. "The forces were so powerful against me, and I had no political or economic base."

Bird said she did not resign in the face of certain defeat because she wanted to lose "legitimately." Resignation would have set a precedent for pressuring a judge to quit, she said. But there also was another reason. Although she knew that staying in the race could mean dragging down Reynoso and Grodin, who also were on the 1986 ballot for voter confirmation, she believed her resignation wouldn't save them. The Republicans needed to replace more than one justice to tip the court's balance in their favor on issues such as reapportionment. Had she resigned, they would have concentrated their fire on the associate justices instead of her, she said.

"It bothered me a great deal that I might play a role in their defeat," Bird said. She told Reynoso and Grodin that it would be all right to separate themselves from her, and offered each of them $80,000 to buy television time, she said. But they wouldn't denounce her and refused the money.

During our interview Bird was open and relaxed until I asked an old question. Did anyone ask her to save Reynoso and Grodin by resigning? "No," she snapped. She had denied it over and over during the campaign, despite widely reported rumors to the contrary. (I had assumed the rumors were true. But after our interview one former Democratic insider who had talked to Bird about saving the campaign said nobody dared make that request.)

Bird turned away most offers of campaign help for herself-from the judiciary because she didn't think other judges "belonged in the middle of that kind of controversy"-and from Democratic politicians. She said then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown offered to run a $1 million campaign for her. "There was no way I could do that and still be a legitimate chief justice," she said. "They thought I was just being a control freak. They didn't understand the situation."

In retrospect, Bird said there wasn't much she would have done differently. "I can't really say that I would have voted differently [on the court] if I knew it would keep me in," she stated. "It was never an option. I made choices, and I was willing to live with them."

But lines had been drawn around her. Loved by some, hated by most of the others, she found that her notoriety wasn't "useful" after she left the court, she said. She never practiced law again. How would a client react, or a jury? "I learned to scale down and live like a student again, to get down to values," Bird said. She didn't mention that she was doing it on a meager state pension of $1,097.94 a month. She came into her full pension, about triple that amount, on her 63rd birthday, a month before she died.

The lunch interview had gone on for an hour and a half, drifting sometimes to other subjects, including Bird's hope, even then, of beating her cancer. She had eaten only two or three spoonfuls of soup, and her words were starting to come out wrong. A local natural foods restaurant we both used to frequent had been taken over by General Motors, she said. Laughing, she caught herself and said, "General Mills."

Did she want to stop? I asked. Had I taken too much time?

"I've got nothing but time," she said. But soon she grabbed the check and invited me to call if I had any follow-up questions. She drove away from the restaurant, smiling and waving before she turned the corner.

Claire Cooper covers the courts for the Sacramento Bee.


Sherri Salzman

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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