Assessing impact of California vote that ousted three justices. Some see possible `targeting' of judges by interest groups

The unprecedented removal of three justices from the California Supreme Court in this week's balloting is expected by some observers to have consequences felt throughout the American judiciary. In California, it is likely to lead to more moderation and conservatism on a court that has been one of the most activist and trend-setting in the land.

The three justices voted out were part of a liberal majority that has helped shape the high tribunal's decisions since the end of World War II. They will be replaced by newly reelected Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, who was a chief foe of the three ousted court members.

Nationally, some judicial experts expect the successful campaign by conservatives, prosecutors, and other groups to unseat the trio to spur similar attempts across the country. And some wonder if it could lead to the ``targeting'' of justices by single-issue or special-interest groups, thus damaging the independence of the judiciary.

``I think it was a black day for the American judiciary,'' says Roy Schotland, a Georgetown University law professor. ``It is going to heat up judicial races, which will have an impact on how judges do their jobs.''

But others think the circumstances surrounding the California election were peculiar enough that they won't be duplicated elsewhere. Many also believe the ouster of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Associate Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, largely because of concern that they were blocking the carrying out of the state's death-penalty law, was proof that judicial elections can ensure accountability on the bench.

Similar challenges mounted against judges in other states proved less successful. In North Carolina, a group calling itself Citizens for a Conservative Court campaigned hard against longtime state Supreme Court member James Exum, who was running for chief justice.

Mr. Exum, a Democrat, was attacked largely for his record on the death penalty. He triumphed, however, over his Republican opponent, Chief Justice Rhoda Billings. Both will remain on the court, with Exum becoming chief justice.

In Oklahoma, Ed Parks Jr., a member of the state Court of Criminal Appeals, easily survived a retention vote. He, too, had been opposed, mainly by trial lawyers, for not voting to sustain the death penalty in some individual cases.

The verdict in California, though, was resounding in the other direction. All three justices, appointees of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., were overwhelmingly rejected by voters - a first in modern US history in one judicial election.

Exit polls indicate the California justices' refusal to uphold death sentences against scores of convicted murderers was central to their removal.

The way is now cleared for Governor Deukmejian to change the ideological makeup of the court, should he so choose. Deukmejian's only two appointments to the court so far have been Malcom Lucas, a conservative, and Edward Panelli, viewed as more of a moderate.

There is rising speculation that the governor will elevate Mr. Lucas to the chief justice slot. The governor plans to name a new chief jurist by the end of the month.

By law, the three justices may serve out their current terms, which end Jan. 5. New nominees are subject to confirmation by an appointments commission made up of the chief justice, the state attorney general, and the senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal. The commission has not rejected a nominee since 1940.

Many legal experts expect a shift in direction on the California court but not a wholesale rollback of many of its longstanding decisions. Instead, it is more likely to gradually narrow the scope of some past rulings and move ahead more cautiously in the future.

``I don't think there will be much retraction,'' says a Stanford University law professor. ``Courts rarely go back. They just don't go forward.''

The California Supreme Court has been known for extending far-reaching protections to criminal defendants, as well as expanding the rights of consumers, racial minorities, tenants, and other groups.

The new court is expected to affirm more death sentences and support the rights of property owners and business interests.

``We definitely will have a reorientation,'' says Preble Stolz, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. ``To my mind, it would be very good if he [the governor] would appoint a Democrat and help depoliticize the court.''

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