Political sparring pulls California's judicial system into the ring

A headline last week in a San Diego newspaper announced that a ''Democratic judge'' was ruling on the Gann initiative - a ballot measure that changed the rules of the state Legislature to the benefit of the minority Republicans.

The Gann initiative was passed by statewide referendum last June, but the ''Democratic'' superior court judge struck it down last week as unconstitutional.

California judges are becoming ever more embroiled in popular politics. Court decisions like this one - regardless of its merits - are destined to become missiles in these attacks.

In 1986, four of California's seven Supreme Court judges face confirmation elections. Three of them, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, were appointed by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Conservatives are already gearing up to defeat the Brown-appointed justices. Political operatives are forecasting a partisan political battle over Supreme Court justices such as the state has never seen.

California voters had always approved justices in ''yes or no'' confirmation elections by wide margins until 1978, when Rose Bird (appointed in 1977) barely won. Over the next few years, three failed attempts to recall her were launched. Now she has begun her own political-action committee to raise funds for her reelection fight.

Her popularity in California is such that, according to Democratic political consultant Joseph Cerrell, few Democrats campaigning in 1986 will want to be publicly linked to her. She will have no organized backing, Mr. Cerrell surmises , against ''probably what will be the whole Republican Party.''

Indeed, opposition to Chief Justice Bird and other liberal, activist justices was a centerpiece of Gov. George Deukmejian's successful 1982 gubernatorial campaign.

Along with the chief justice, conservatives are targeting Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin for defeat in 1986.

But Bird will be the campaign focus. ''She is sort of a symbol for the court, '' says Debbie Goff, of the Dolphin Group, a Republican campaign-management firm retained by a committee of ''families of crime victims'' and others to defeat the three justices.

The central complaint of Bird's detractors is that she shows more concern for the rights of the accused than for protecting crime victims. When the court strikes down or alters a measure passed by statewide referendum, this gives an edge to the perception, promoted by conservatives, that the court is flouting the will of the people.

''This is not a fuzzy issue for people,'' says Michael Carrington, chief of staff to Bird's most vehement foe, ultra-conservative state Sen. H. L. Richardson. ''And they don't care about the technicalities of the issues.''

''The most potent point that her opponents have against her is that no one has died in the gas chamber,'' says Preble Stolz, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and author of a book on Bird's first confirmation election.

Last week's decision on the Gann initiative may or may not be heard in the Bird court. Either way, Democratic state Assembly Speaker Willy Brown - who stood to lose much of his political clout if the initiative went into effect - didn't help Bird politically last summer when he announced his confidence that ''Sister Rose and the Supremes'' would bail him out by striking at least much of the measure down.

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