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Rose Bird

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Rose Elizabeth Bird (November 2, 1936-December 4, 1999) served for 10 years as the 25th Chief Justice (and first female Chief Justice) of the California Supreme Court until removed from that office by the voters.


Her career was marked by several firsts: prior to becoming the first female Chief Justice in California, she was the first female law clerk in the Supreme Court of Nevada, the first female deputy public defender in Santa Clara County, and the first woman to hold a cabinet-level job in California (as Secretary of Agriculture). In 1966 Rose Bird had joined the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office where, between 1966 and 1974, she held the positions of deputy public defender, senior trial deputy, and chief of the appellate division. In addition to arguing cases before California's Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, and in federal court, Bird taught at Stanford Law School from 1972 through 1974.

As of 1986, six of 15 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, including Earl Warren, had had no previous judicial experience, but Bird's lack of prior judicial experience, when originally appointed by former Governor of California Jerry Brown, led to the assertion that she was unqualified for the position in campaign literature by Republican Associates of Southern California, directed by Gene Wibert of Glendale, CA.

Recall From Office

Bird was the first Chief Justice to be removed from that office by a majority of the state's voters. California Supreme Court justices are selected by the Governor but must be regularly reconfirmed by the electorate; prior to Bird, no California appellate judge had ever failed such a vote.

She was removed in the November 4, 1986 election after a high-profile, highly partisan campaign that cited her categorical opposition to the death penalty.Template:Ref She had voted against the death penalty in all 61 cases that came before her.Template:Ref This led Bird's opponents to claim that she was substituting her own opinions and ideas for the laws and precedents upon which judicial decisions are supposed to be made. The anti-Bird campaign ran television commercials featuring the children of the victims of the murderers whose sentences Bird and her allies Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin had voted to reverse. In addition to Bird, Reynoso and Grodin were also voted off the bench. Justice Stanley Mosk, who regularly joined Bird, Reynoso, and Grodin, was not challenged and remained on the court.

As a result of the 1986 election, Governor George Deukmejian was able to appoint several conservative justices (including new Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas and move the court to a more right-leaning, pro-business (and pro-death penalty) judicial philosophy.

The campaign to oust Bird is considered a triumph for social conservatives. However, the campaign was also supported by business interests, who felt that California's legal system had become too anti-business under prior chief justices like Roger Traynor, and Bird was compounding the liability crisis with opinions that were muddling previously-settled aspects of contract law.

According to labor writer Dick Meister, antipathy toward Bird dated back to her support of farmworkers during her tenure as Brown's secretary of agriculture and for what employer interests and their Republican allies claimed to be her "anti-business" stand while on the court later. They cited Bird's leading role in decisions that upheld the right of state employees to bargain collectively and for public employees generally to strike as long as they didn't endanger public health and safety.

The California State Library is the repository for the archive of Californians to Defeat Rose Bird.

The Reversal of Bird's Legacy

One of the most prominent examples of Lucas's eagerness to reverse Bird's pro-consumer legacy in California jurisprudence was the case of Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Companies, (46 Cal. 3d 287 1988)Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Career After Ouster

Bird appeared as a family court judge in an episode of the 1984-85 TV series Pryor's Place starring Richard Pryor. In 1987, Bird appeared as a judge on a television program called Superior Court". In her later years, she withdrew from public life and became a recluse.

Death and Tributes

Bird died on December 4, 1999 at Stanford University Medical Center from complications of breast cancer (which she had fought on and off since 1976) at the age of 63. The California Public Defender's Association established an award in her honor, as did the California Women Lawyers.


Chen, Edwin. "California court fight; Bird runs for her life." The Nation, 18 Jan 1986, p. 43-46.

Culver, John H. "The transformation of the California Supreme Court: 1977-1997." Albany Law Review 61, no. 5 (Mid-Summer 1998): 1461-1490.

Lindsey, Robert. "Deukmejian and Cranston Win As 3 Judges Are Ousted." New York Times, 6 November 1986, sec. A, p. 30.

Olson, Lynne, "Rose Bird," Working Woman, October 1984, p. 117 as cited by Chief Bird's Judicial Experience at

Purdum, Todd S. "Rose Bird, Once California's Chief Justice, Is Dead at 63." New York Times, 6 December 1999, sec. B, p. 18.

Wibert, Gene as cited by Chief Bird's Judicial Experience by

This article was taken from Wikipedia on 12/18/2007

External links