In The News

Pioneering Supreme Court justice, rejected by voters, might get new honor at California Capitol

By Bob Egelko

San Francisco Chronicle

April 28, 2023

The late Chief Justice Rose Bird was a trailblazer, the first woman ever appointed to a California governor’s cabinet, then the first to be named to the California Supreme Court — and, after a political firestorm over the court’s reversals of death sentences, one of the first three justices to be denied a new term by the voters.

Now, more than 35 years later, a Bay Area lawmaker’s proposal to rename a rose garden plaza outside the state Capitol in Bird’s honor has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

“With the passage of time, we have an even better perspective about the courageous life and leadership of the chief justice,” Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, said after his resolution, SCR47, was approved by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee on a 10-2 vote this week.

Or, to put it another way, a commendation that would have been, at least, extremely controversial several decades ago can apparently proceed today, with some bipartisan support. 

“Look at the totality of (her) life,” said Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), who joined nine Democrats in voting for SCR47 on Tuesday, with two other Republicans in opposition. “In many ways she was a trailblazer.”

Wilk said he voted against Bird in 1986, when she and two colleagues were denied new 12-year terms — the first justices to be defeated since 1934, when the state replaced partisan contests for its high court with nonpartisan retention elections. But “that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be honored for what she’s done for women,” he told The Chronicle.

One of the opposing votes came from the state Senate’s Republican leader, Brian Jones of San Diego. Asked for his reasons, Jones said he celebrates Bird’s “great accomplishment of being the first female to achieve the highest office of the California courts,” but that honors on the Capitol grounds “should be saved for those of the highest distinction — not somebody who repeatedly defied the will of the voters resulting in the end of her service.”

Bird was the first woman to serve as a law clerk for the Nevada Supreme Court and as a public defender in Santa Clara County before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her as state agriculture secretary in 1975, the first female cabinet member in state history. There, she won praise from farmworkers, and antagonism from the farm industry, by banning the short-handled hoe, a tool that required field hands to spend much of their day bent halfway to the ground.

Brown then named her to succeed the retiring Chief Justice Donald Wright, and she was confirmed in February 1977 after a bruising confirmation battle, becoming the court’s first female justice.

Rulings during her tenure strengthened protections for consumers and the environment and increased rights for workers, renters and women seeking abortions. But the issue that dominated public discourse was the death penalty.

California’s death penalty law, previously overturned by state and federal courts, was reinstated by the Legislature in 1977 and expanded by the voters in 1978. But the Bird court found constitutional flaws in death verdicts issued under the new law and overturned 61 death sentences over the next nine years, while Bird voted to reverse all 65 capital cases she considered.

Bird narrowly won retention in the 1978 election, but in November 1986 the chief justice and two other Brown appointees, Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, were denied new terms by overwhelming voter majorities, and by 2-1 against Bird. The slogan of the $10 million opposition campaign, largely funded by businesses and agriculture organizations, was “Cast Three Votes for the Death Penalty.”

The court’s majority then abruptly swung from liberal to conservative, although it moved in a more centrist direction a decade later and now is moderately liberal. Bird virtually disappeared from public life after her removal, working as a volunteer before dying of breast cancer at age 63 in 1999.

Glazer, a political consultant before his election to the state Senate in 2015, was the official spokesperson for Bird’s campaign in 1986. His resolution would rename a plaza at the center of the state Capitol’s World Peace Rose Garden as the Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird Justice for All Plaza.

Despite Bird’s pioneering role in law and public policy for women in California, SCR47 declares, there is “no state recognition for her contributions to the State of California. Few state buildings and parks are named after female contributors to California law.”

The measure now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee and requires majority approval from both houses, though not the governor’s signature, to become law. Glazer said he is confident it will win passage.

Reach Bob Egelko:; Twitter: @BobEgelko