Brown, Janice Rogers 1949–
Janice Rogers Brown 1949–
Of the various jurists nominated by President George W. Bush to fill court vacancies, several have stirred controversy and inspired Democrats in the United States Senate to dig in their heels in resistance. Perhaps none was more controversial, however, than that of Janice Rogers Brown, a justice of the California Supreme Court whose strong opinions and outspoken mode of expression polarized observers of the judicial scene and American politics in general. To some, Brown was a brilliant and independent-minded jurist who probed deeply in questioning the assumptions behind previous judicial decisions. Others considered her a right-wing extremist who played a part in an effort on the President’s part to change the orientation of the nation’s judicial system.
The daughter of a sharecropper, Brown was born in Greenville, Alabama, on May 11, 1949. She grew up during the segregation era, and attended all-black schools. Two grandmothers taught her to prize dignity and hard work, and one of them told her about Fred Gray, the pioneering African-American attorney in Alabama who defended Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., in court, and who played an important role early in the civil rights revolution. If her family had had a motto, Brown was quoted as saying by the Montgomery Advertiser, it would have been “Don’t snivel.” The result of this upbringing was a young woman who thought for herself. She was also determined to become a lawyer.
The family moved to Sacramento, California, when Brown was a teenager, and she attended California State University at Sacramento, graduating in 1974. During her college years Brown espoused many of the liberal ideas of the time. “I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, ‘If you aren’t a liberal before you’re 30 you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative before you’re 40 you have no brain,’” Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That saying applies to me.” Her change of heart came at the University of California at Los Angeles Law School, where Brown earned a law degree in 1977. She came to believe that the court system was an inappropriate mechanism for effecting broad social change.
Brown married twice and had one son. Her first husband, Allen, died in 1988, and three years later, she married Dewey Parker, a jazz musician. A reclusive person, she tended to avoid the public spotlight. This
Born on May 11, 1949, in Greenville, AL; married Allen (died 1988); married Dewey Parker (a jazz musician), 1991; children: one son. Education: California State University at Sacramento, BA, 1974; University of California at Los Angeles, JD, 1977.
Career: California Department of Justice, deputy attorney general, 1979-87; California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency, deputy secretary and general counsel, 1987-91; office of California Governor Pete Wilson, legal affairs secretary, 1991-94; California Court of Appeals, associate justice, 1994-96; California Supreme Court, justice, 1996-.
Addresses: Office —California Supreme Court, 302 SE St., South Tower, 9th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94107.
was easy enough to do during the long stretch of her life when she worked as an attorney in the middle levels of a vast state bureaucracy. Admitted to the California Bar at the end of 1977, she served as deputy legislative counsel from 1979, deputy attorney general from 1979-87, and deputy secretary and general counsel for the California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency from 1987-89. From 1989-91 she worked in private practice.
Brown’s rise to prominence began when she joined the administration of California’s Republican governor Pete Wilson in 1991. Working with Wilson on such issues as death-penalty cases, she gained the ear of the crusading governor, who was identified with several high-profile conservative causes. Wilson appointed Brown to the Third District California Court of Appeals in 1994 and nominated her for a State Supreme Court vacancy two years later.
By that time, Brown had already begun to generate controversy. A 27-member California Bar panel gave her a rare “not qualified” rating, pointing not only to Brown’s scant two years as a judge, but also to the subjective nature of her opinions, which the panel said tended to disregard legal precedent when it conflicted with Brown’s personal views. But Wilson refused to abandon the nomination. And Brown claimed a number of defenders within California’s judicial community, including some who disagreed with her conservative philosophy. In May of 1996 Brown was confirmed by the state legislature and elevated to the California Supreme Court.
Although Brown rarely granted interviews, and lived in semi-seclusion with her husband in a gated community in suburban Sacramento, she was never far from the center of the political whirlwind. Brown generally aligned herself with the court’s most conservative wing, voting in favor of drug testing for job applicants to public agencies and for allowing cities to restrict the movements of gang members. In 1997 Brown dissented from the court’s ruling allowing minors to obtain abortions without the consent of a parent or judge. Particularly galling to many African-American activists was Brown’s 2000 decision upholding Proposition 209, a voter-approved initiative banning preferential treatment for minorities and women by California’s educational institutions and public agencies.
Yet Brown sometimes took positions generally affiliated with a liberal judicial philosophy, strongly dissenting, for example, from a court decision that upheld a police search of a man stopped for riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the street. Sometimes it was the language rather than the content of Brown’s opinions that antagonized lawmakers and fellow jurists, and the sweeping nature of her decisions left her open to criticism. Her decision to uphold Proposition 209 contained a lengthy repudiation of the entire history of affirmative action, which Chief Justice Ronald George, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, condemned as “unnecessary and inappropriate.”
In 2003 President Bush nominated Brown to fill a vacancy on the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a key post that historically had often served as a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court. The battle lines were drawn in the U.S. Senate, where liberal members had already mounted filibusters against several Bush judicial nominees. Arguing that Brown held views well out of the judicial mainstream, Democratic senators pointed especially to a 2000 speech that Brown gave before the conservative Federalist Society, in which, according to the Houston Chronicle, she referred to the enactment of the New Deal reforms of the 1930s as “the triumph of our own socialist revolution.”
Brown responded that the speech was meant to stir up new intellectual currents, and that she, having worked for most of her life in the public sector, would readily agree that government had an appropriate role in delivering services. Once again some liberals, including presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton, rose to Brown’s defense. In November of 2003, Brown’s nomination was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nomination seemed likely to encounter a filibuster on the Senate floor. But whatever its ultimate fate, Janice Rogers Brown had clearly established herself as a major force in American jurisprudence, a bare-knuckled advocate for her interpretations of American legal principles.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 23, 2003, p. A3; November 6, 2003, p. A3.
Austin American-Statesman, October 23, 2003, p. A6.
Houston Chronicle, November 7, 2003, p. 4.
Montgomery Advertiser, October 23, 2003, p. A1.
St. Petersburg Times, November 23, 2003, p. P7.
San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 1996, p. A1; August 16, 1996, p. A21; April 29, 2001, p. A6; July 26, 2003, p. A11; October 21, 2003, p. A1; October 26, 2003, p. D1.
Washington Times, November 6, 2003, p. A4.
—James M. Manheim
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