Rose Bird, the first woman to serve as a member of a Governor’s Cabinet and the first woman to serve as Chief Justice of California, is long overdue for being remembered and honored.
A resolution now pending in the California legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 47, introduced by Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), would do just that by renaming a rose garden plaza outside the State Capitol after Bird. . The resolution passed the Senate Committee on Government Organization by a vote of 10 to 2, and now must be approved by both houses of the legislature.
Bird, who died in 1999 at age 63, had an illustrious career and was a true pioneer. After graduating from UC Berkeley Law School (where she is now dean) in 1965, she was the first woman to serve as a clerk on the Nevada Supreme Court. She then became the first woman to serve as a Deputy Public Defender in Santa Clara County. Governor Jerry Brown appointed her Secretary of Agriculture, making her the first woman to hold a cabinet position. In 1977, Brown appointed Bird as Chief Justice of California.
So why has nothing been named in his memory? The answer is that she is best remembered because she was denied retention by the California Supreme Court in 1986. That year, she and two colleagues, Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, were rejected in their retention elections. These were the first and, to this point, the only judges denied retention since 1934.
Bird’s legacy is tainted by this, but she never did anything wrong. There was never an accusation of the slightest impropriety by Bird or her colleagues. The vote against her was the result of a well-organized and well-funded Conservative campaign.
The Bird Court was unquestionably liberal and found in favor of injured claimants seeking recovery. The insurance industry paid heavily for a recall campaign, initially targeting Bird and then Grodin and Reynoso. Their goal was a much more business-friendly court, and they used the overturned death sentences from the Bird Court as the focus of their campaign.
California’s death penalty law had been declared unconstitutional by state and federal courts. The California legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1977 and it was expanded on voter initiative in 1978. During Bird’s tenure as chief justice, the court quashed death sentences in 61 of 65 cases by a near or unanimous vote. unanimous.
But the recall campaign did not focus on the merits of the California Supreme Court decisions. Opponents attacked Bird, Grodin and Reynoso simply for not affirming enough death sentences. The anti-Bird campaign ran television commercials featuring the surviving families of murder victims from cases in which the California Supreme Court had overturned the death sentence. The campaigns to retain Bird, Grodin and Reynoso emphasized the importance of judicial independence, but that message, unfortunately, did not resonate with voters.
Given California’s current politics, it’s hard to believe that three judges were denied retention for being liberal. But the political mood in California was different then. A Republican governor, George Deukmejian, picked three conservatives to the Supreme Court who dramatically shifted their direction in a much more pro-business and pro-law enforcement direction.
The circumstances surrounding Bird’s coming off the bench shouldn’t obscure his tremendous accomplishments. The fact that she was denied withholding was due to the politics of the time and was unquestionably aided by sexism. She should be remembered for a life dedicated to public service and for being the first woman to serve in a governor’s cabinet and to serve as chief justice.
The Senate resolution would rename a plaza in the center of the state Capitol’s World Peace Rose Garden as Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird’s Justice for All Plaza. It’s a small but important gesture to remember an important person in California history.
Erwin Chemerinsky is dean and professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law.