Bird, Rose Elizabeth
BIRD, ROSE ELIZABETH
Rose Elizabeth Bird served as the first woman on the California Supreme Court, becoming the chief justice of one of the most prominent appellate courts in the United States. Bird became a controversial figure during the 1980s, as her adamant opposition to capital punishment drew fire from political conservatives. In 1986, these views led voters to remove her from office. In her nine years on the court, however, Bird led a liberal majority that strengthened environmental laws, consumer rights, and women's rights.
Bird was born on November 2, 1936, in Tucson, Arizona. She spent her childhood in Arizona and New York, where she graduated from Long Island University in 1958. She attended graduate school in political science at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960 but switched her career path to law when she entered Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 1962. After graduation in 1965, Bird was admitted to the practice of law in California.
Following graduation, Bird served a one-year term as a law clerk for the chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court. In 1966 she joined the Santa Clara County, California, public defenders office. Bird remained in the public defenders office until 1974, serving successively as deputy public defender, senior trial deputy, and chief
public defender of the appellate division. As head of the appellate division, Bird oversaw all public defender criminal appeals to the California Courts of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. In addition to these duties, Bird served as an adjunct professor of law at Stanford University Law School from 1972 to 1974.
Bird's eventual rise to the California Supreme Court began when she became the chauffeur during Democrat Jerry Brown's campaign for the governorship in 1974. Following his election, Brown appointed Bird to his cabinet as secretary of agriculture. She spent most of her time in that office working to settle a series of ongoing disputes between growers and farm unions. Moreover, she drafted reforms to the state's farm labor law and to consumer legislation.
In 1977, after twenty-two months in the cabinet, Governor Brown appointed Bird, then age 40, as chief justice of the California Supreme Court. She gained immediate national prominence because she was the first woman to serve on the state's high court. As a member of a liberal majority, Bird established herself as a brilliant and combative judge. During her tenure, the court issued decisions that promoted environmental regulation and civil rights for racial minorities and women. Other decisions gave tenants more rights and poor women the right to have a state-funded abortion.
Coming from the public defenders office, the large corporate law firms and influential bar associations viewed her as an outsider. Bird signaled her disdain for the "old boys" system of privilege by selling the chief justice's Cadillac and by staying at inexpensive motels rather than at expensive hotels while on state business. She also exercised strong leadership over the administration of the courts. Bird promoted racial and gender diversity on the bench. During her tenure, more than one-thousand judges were appointed who were either persons of color or female. In addition, she led the court system to change its rules to allow cameras in the courtroom. Finally, she initiated a study of gender bias in the courts, a groundbreaking effort that was adopted by many other state courts during the 1980s and 1990s.
"My role isn't to be politically smart. My role is to do what's right under the constitution. And if that's politically unpopular, so be it."
It was Bird's opposition to the death penalty, however, that had the greatest effect on her judicial
career. California reinstated the death penalty in 1977 over the veto of Governor Brown. Thus, Bird took the bench at the same time that death penalty appeals would return to the state supreme court. Although Bird never discussed her personal views while on the court, she voted to overturn all sixty-four death sentences under her consideration.
By the mid-1980s, conservative political leaders began attacking Bird and members of the liberal majority who regularly voted against the death sentence. In 1986, Republican Governor George Deukmejian, along with local prosecutors, led a hard-hitting campaign to remove Bird and fellow justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin from the court. They became the first judges in state history to be removed from office in a retention election. A retention election allows citizens to vote to retain or oust the judge in which there are no opposing candidates. Governor Deukmejian then appointed three justices to fill the vacancies.
Following her defeat, Bird dropped from the public scene. She volunteered at a Palo Alto legal aid office, doing clerical work because she let her bar registration dues lapse. She also worked at a local food bank, taught for a short time in Australia at the University of Sydney, and lectured occasionally around the country. She died on December 4, 1999, in Palo Alto from complications related to breast cancer.
Beck, Susan. 1998. "Justice on the Run." American Lawyer (September): 76.
Cooper, Claire. 2000. "Rose Bird: The Last Interview." California Lawyer 20 (February): 38.