Rose Bird: A Judge for the Powerless

    In 1995, an East Palo Alto poverty law office volunteer known only as Rose dutifully performed various clerical tasks for the lawyers of the firm. It was several months before anyone realised the woman at the copier was the controversial Rose Bird, first female justice in California and the only California Chief Justice to be removed from office (Dolan, 1995). Once a pioneer for women in law1, Bird fell into obscurity after she failed to earn enough votes to maintain her tenure as Chief Justice on the California Supreme Court. She had devoted her nine-year judgeship to the powerless, voiceless, and unpopular and while fellow justices recall that “compassion and convictions were the greatest virtues” of Rose Bird, they were also the “seeds of political downfall” (Weinstein, 2000). Bird’s firm stance against the death penalty turned thousands of California voters against the judge. Her willingness to risk everything over her extreme dedication to justice for all, especially the underrepresented and unpopular, demonstrated her tremendous political courage “to pursue a unique and independent course” (Kennedy, 1956, p.4)

            Bird was distinguished from the beginning by a devotion to justice and sympathy for the powerless. In 1977, her judgeship had narrowly passed due to conservative Republican objection as Bird, a woman taking a traditionally male role, had angered many large agri-businesses as Secretary of Agriculture when she supported labour reforms, strikes, and Cesar Chavez (Clifford, 1986; Harris & Cohen, 2012, p.120). A former public defense attorney raised by a single mother factory worker, Bird had a special heart for the disadvantaged, underrepresented, and often unpopular groups including agriculture workers, laborers, tenants, minorities, the homeless, and, most controversially, criminals. Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed Bird as Secretary of Agriculture and nominated her to fill the seat of chief justice, described Rose Bird as someone “who took the perspective of people who didn’t have power and she kept that perspective even when she had power” (Weinstein, 2000). It was a conviction to help these groups that drove Bird during her time in court and she came in with the mind-set of reforming the court to better deliver justice to the common people. In an early speech that angered many politicians, Bird described the judicial system as “just another example of burgeoning bureaucracy, as places of cold rationality, inaccessible, and unaffordable to the average citizen” (Hatfield, 1999). Although now hailed by modern judges for her efforts (efforts that "broadened protections for criminal defendants, set new safeguards for consumers, expanded the liability of corporations and businesses and increased civil-rights protections" and also ridded the court of its luxury cars and annual meetings at expensive high-end resorts), Bird’s many reforms of the California judicial system incited much animosity at the time (Nussbaum, 1986). But the most controversial stance, the one most detrimental to her political career, was that of the death penalty.

            During Bird’s time on court, 63 death penalty cases came before her at a time when 80% of California residents believed in capital punishment. She voted to overturn every single one, "often go[ing] farther than the rest of the court was willing to go" (Sowell, 1986). Bird used not her personal beliefs to defend her decisions, but rather cited the various violations of justice that plagued California’s death penalty. At the time, opponents of the death penalty were not permitted to serve on juries and victims of capital punishment were overwhelmingly minorities. Bird declared, “The rule of the law has to apply not only to the weak but to the powerful and not only to the popular but to the unpopular as well” (State Bar of California, 2000). Additionally, California law required several circumstances to met (such as intent and nature of the crime) and Bird frequently found these requirements were not fully upheld or sufficiently proved with concrete evidence. One such case involved a man who had robbed a bank and fatally wounded a security guard. According to California law, the convicted must have intended death and no evidence supported that the robber had meant anything more than to wound the guard in an attempt to escape. While the majority of the judges, and California residents, saw a only felon who deserved to die for his crimes, Bird saw a man whose crime did not meet the standards that allowed capital punishment. Bird, unlike so many, was able to look beyond a crime, no matter how horrendous, and see a human being with the right to justice entitled to all people. Bird’s personal views echoed those of US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan (1982), who believed “the calculated killing of a human being by the state involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person’s humanity” and is “degrading to the very essence of human dignity” (p.127). Bird deviated from the wishes of the majority and dissented from popular decisions of the court for what she believed to be the cause of social justice and equality.

            As Bird continued to spare criminals from the gas chamber, a campaign rallied to have her removed at the next reconfirmation election in 1986. Led by such wealthy and notable politicians as Senator H.L Richardson and Governor Deukmejian, the opposition painted Bird as a “soft on crime” liberal and proclaimed “Bird let the killers go free”, although no one whose death sentence was overturned ever went free but rather served life imprisonment (Harris & Cohen, 2012, p.121). The “Bye-Bye Birdie” slogan that spread across the state overshadowed the ‘the woman of valor” Bird’s friends and colleagues knew (Weinstein, 1999). Despite the backlash and personal attacks, Bird stayed strong and firm in what she knew to be justice. As President John F. Kennedy (1956) remarked, “A man does what he must- in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures- and that is the basis of all human morality” (p.134). After a heavily funded and vicious fight against Bird, she lost the reconfirmation election and became the first California Chief Justice to be removed from office. The devoted civil servant and well-intentioned idealist proved to far out of line with the majority and suffered greatly for it. Federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote of Rose Bird, “Her constituentency was the powerless and it made her an easy target… In some ways, she was just too good, too pure, to be part of this highly political and pragmatic world of ours” (Weinstein, 2000). Although she took the news graciously, she feared the results, which removed Bird as well as Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, would compromise judicial independence and turn judges not into delivers of justice for all but politicians controlled by the whims and views of majority groups who do not have the interests and well-being of minorities and unpopular groups at heart (Erler & Vincent, 1986; Sowell, 1986). A CBS report on Rose Bird in May of 1986 acknowledged that the upcoming election would "make judges nationwide think twice about politics, pressures, and principals", making political courage even more difficult and important in the judicial system ("California Chief Justice", 1986). The reconfirmation election of 1986 removed three judges, including the Chief Justice, who were not afraid to defy majorities and popular rulings for justice. 

Rose Bird saw the many injustices present in the California court system, most notably in the death penalty, and put her career on the line to give a voice to the lowest of society and proved a politically courageous woman who never shied away from ethics or morals, even when it would have been easier to “go along to get along” (Kennedy, 1956, p.5). Although she is still criticized for her opinions, California Justice Ronald M. George, who served alongside Bird, believes she will be remembered for “her unwavering commitment to do what she believed to be right and her efforts to improve the administration of justice” (1999).

1. In addition to being the first female Justice on the California Supreme Court (and second in the country), Bird was the first female clerk of the Nevada Supreme Court, first female public defender in Santa Clara County, first female to teach at Stanford's law school, and first woman to hold a cabinet-level job in the California government. Following her death in 1999, the California Women Lawyers association created an award in her honour. 

Reference List

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California chief justice Rose Bird loses election [Video file]. (1986, May 21). Retrieved                                                                     from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kd162US36to

Clifford, F. (1986). Lone justice: In search of the real Rose Bird. LA Times. Retrieved                                                                         from http://articles.latimes.com/1986-10-05/magazine/tm-4264_1_i-m-rose-    

Dolan, M. (1995). Rose Bird’s quest for obscurity. LA Times. Retrieved                                                                                             from http://articles.latimes.com/1995-11-15/news/mn-3456_1_rose-bird

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George, R M. (2000) In memoriam [Memorial Speech]. Retrieved from http://www.cschs.org/history/california-supreme-           court-justices/rose-elizabeth-bird/

Harris, G. G., & Cohen, H. S. (2012). Women trailblazers of California: Pioneers to present. Gloucestershire, England: The             History Press. 

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Kennedy, J. F. (1956). Profiles in Courage. New York, NY: HaperCollinsPublishers. 

Nussbaum, P. (1986). Debate over the death penalty may cost top California judge her job. Philadelphia. Retrieved                                                 from http://articles.philly.com/1986-10-26/news/26060775_1_death-penalty-aaron-c-mitchell-rose-elizabeth-bird

Sowell, T. (1986). Rose Bird deserved to be removed from office. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved                                                           from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-11-19/news/8603270146_1_california-justices-justices-rose-              bird-california-supreme-court

State Bar of California. (2000). Former chief justice Rose Bird dies after long bout with cancer. California Bar Journal.                        January, pp. 1-2.

Weinstein, H. (2000). Rose Bird eulogized for compassion, strength. LA Times. Retrieved from                                                         http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/10/news/mn-52560