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Rose Bird
Rose Elizabeth Bird.jpg
25th Chief Justice of California
In office
March 26, 1977 – January 5, 1987
Appointed by Jerry Brown
Preceded by Donald Wright
Succeeded by Malcolm M. Lucas
Personal details
Born (1936-11-02)November 2, 1936
near Tucson, Arizona
Died December 4, 1999(1999-12-04) (aged 63)
Stanford, California

Rose Elizabeth Bird (November 2, 1936 – December 4, 1999) served for 10 years as the 25th Chief Justice of California. She was the first female Justice, and first female Chief Justice, on that court, appointed by then Governor Jerry Brown. In the November 1986 state election she also became the only Chief Justice in California history to be removed from office by the voters, mainly due to her opposition to the death penalty.

Early life and experience[edit]

Bird was born near Tucson, Arizona. Her father, after having deserted the family, died when she was five, so her mother Anne moved with Rose and her two older brothers to New York City, where Bird and her brothers grew up in poverty. Bird earned her bachelor's degree magna cum laude from Long Island University and went on to graduate from the UC Berkeley School of Law (also known as Boalt Hall) in 1965.

Her career was marked by several firsts: she was the first female law clerk in the Supreme Court of Nevada, the first female deputy public defender in Santa Clara County, the first woman to hold a cabinet-level job in California (as Secretary of Agriculture), the first female Chief Justice of California, and the first Chief Justice to be removed from the Supreme Court of California.

In 1966, Bird 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 the state's highest court, the Courts of Appeal, and in federal court, Bird also taught at Stanford Law School from 1972 through 1974.

Her tenure on the Supreme Court was controversial. She was vigorously publicly attacked by her critics as an ideologue who substituted her personal views over the law and the state constitution. Her widely perceived personal opposition to the death penalty was a particular sore point for her critics. She was first up for an retention election in 1978. There was a campaign waged against her, which she did not respond to. However, on election day, it was charged that the court decided to withhold the publication of a controversial ruling until after the 1978 vote.[1] The ensuing controversy generated considerable press coverage but, by then, Bird had been retained by a 52% to 48% margin.

Bird was also controversial among the Associate Justices on her own court. In a 1998 oral history interview, Stanley Mosk explained that Bird was a bright and intelligent judge but a terrible administrator (one of the Chief Justice's major responsibilities); she did bizarre things like forcing all the Associate Justices to make appointments just to talk to her for any reason.[2]

Reconfirmation loss[edit]

Bird was the first and remains the only Chief Justice to be removed from that office by a majority of the state's voters. California 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.[3]

She was removed in the November 4, 1986 election by a margin of 67 to 33 percent after a high-profile campaign that cited her categorical opposition to the death penalty.[4] She reviewed a total of 64 capital cases appealed to the court. In each instance she issued a decision overturning the death penalty that had been imposed at trial. She was joined in her decision to overturn by at least three other members of the court in 61 of those cases.[5] This led Bird's critics 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. In addition, the Bird court struck down California's "use a gun, go to jail" law that made a prison term mandatory for any crime in which the use of a gun was involved. She also ruled that the state Constitution required that the state provide free abortions for poor women.[6] The anti-Bird campaign ran television commercials featuring the relatives of the victims of the murderers whose sentences Bird and her fellow justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin had voted to reverse.[7] In addition to Bird, Reynoso and Grodin were also voted off the seven-justice California state supreme court bench. Justice Stanley Mosk, who often joined Bird, Reynoso, and Grodin, was not challenged nor were the other three justices.

Twelve years later, Mosk explained why he was able to stay and Bird was not:

Rose Bird was pilloried because she generally voted to find some defect in death penalty convictions and to reverse them. I probably don't like the death penalty any more than she does. As a matter of fact, I think the death penalty is wrong, that a person has no right to kill, and the state has no right to kill. But the difference is that I took an oath to support the law as it is and not as I might prefer it to be, and therefore, I've written my share of opinions upholding capital judgments.[8]

As a result of the 1986 election, newly reelected Governor George Deukmejian was able to elevate Justice Malcolm Lucas to Chief Justice and appoint three new associate justices that more closely matched his generally conservative political convictions, and in turn, the Lucas court moved toward a more "business-friendly" and "pro-law enforcement" judicial philosophy.[9]

Career after the Supreme Court[edit]

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 (a show somewhat similar to The People's Court, though with scripted trials usually focusing on topical issues).

Death and tributes[edit]

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.[5] The California Public Defender's Association established an award in her honor, as did the California Women Lawyers. New York Law School annually awards one graduating student the Chief Justice Rose E. Bird Award for Motivation in Pursuing Public Interest Law.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brown, Patrick. "The Rise and Fall of Rose Bird, A Career Killed by the Death Penalty" (pdf). California Supreme Court Historical Society. 
  2. ^ Hon. Stanley Mosk, Oral History Interview (Berkeley: California State Archives Regional Oral History Office, 1998), 54–55.
  3. ^ Chen, Edwin. "California court fight; Bird runs for her life." The Nation, 18 Jan 1986, p. 43-46.
  4. ^ Lindsey, Robert. "Deukmejian and Cranston Win As 3 Judges Are Ousted." New York Times, 6 November 1986, sec. A, p. 30.
  5. ^ a b Purdum, Todd S. (December 6, 1999). "Rose Bird, Once California's Chief Justice, Is Dead at 63". The New York Times. sec. B, p. 18. Retrieved July 18, 2010. 
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Joseph R. Grodin, In Pursuit of Justice: Reflections of a State Supreme Court Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 178–179.
  8. ^ Mosk Oral History Interview, 57.
  9. ^ Culver, John H. "The transformation of the California Supreme Court: 1977-1997." Albany Law Review 61, no. 5 (Mid-Summer 1998): 1461-1490.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Donald R. Wright
Chief Justice of California
March 26, 1977 – January 5, 1987
Succeeded by
Malcolm M. Lucas

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_Bird — Please support Wikipedia.
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404 news items

Fresno Bee

Fresno Bee
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 10:33:45 -0800

At the time, he was 18 and the youngest death-row resident in the United States. But on Dec. 31, 1985, the state Supreme Court under Rose Bird overturned the death penalty for Leach and 10 other defendants. The penalty phase of Leach's trial was ...
Merced Sun-Star
Wed, 25 Nov 2015 10:00:00 -0800

Is the death penalty viable in California? Until recently, opposing it usually meant political suicide at the state level. In 1986, Rose Bird, chief justice of the California Supreme Court and Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee, was booted from office by ...

The Bakersfield Californian

The Bakersfield Californian
Thu, 26 Nov 2015 23:52:30 -0800

In the 1970s Gonzales was elected to the state assembly by the conservative voters of Kern County. He only served one term because of his extreme left positions and support for uber-liberal Gov. Jerry Brown and State Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird.
Sat, 21 Nov 2015 23:52:30 -0800

Is the death penalty viable in California? Until recently, opposing it usually meant political suicide at the state level. In 1986, Rose Bird, chief justice of the California Supreme Court and Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee, was booted from office by ...
Sat, 21 Nov 2015 00:03:45 -0800

Is the death penalty viable in California? Until recently, opposing it usually meant political suicide at the state level. In 1986, Rose Bird, chief justice of the California Supreme Court and Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee, was booted from office by ...


Fri, 13 Nov 2015 14:52:30 -0800

Jerry Brown, Rose Bird becomes California Supreme Court Chief Justice. November 1978: California voters approve Proposition 7, the Death Penalty Act. It will not be implemented until 1992. August 1984: Gunmen kill the mother (Ebora), sister (Dietra ...
San Jose Mercury News
Sun, 08 Aug 2010 00:02:10 -0700

When Meg Whitman recently attacked Jerry Brown for his appointment of Rose Bird as California's chief justice 33 years ago, some pundits dismissed it as a tired story. Politically, they're probably right. But even Brown loyalists have conceded that the ...

Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal
Wed, 27 Jul 2011 09:52:37 -0700

Former California Chief Justice Rose Bird was removed from office after her 1986 retention election in a wave of anger against her history of liberal rulings. The same fate befell two other Brown appointees, Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin.

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