A new biography of California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk opens with an apt quote from the late and much-loved Jewish Journal columnist Marlene Adler Marks: “Mosk,” Marks wrote in these pages in 1997, “is California history with a heartbeat.”
Mosk entered public service during a certain golden age of California, a period during which the administration of Gov. Pat Brown was building highways, dams and a public university, while his attorney general, Stanley Mosk, continued his own lifelong commitment to achieving social justice through the rule of law. Today, Mosk’s legacy is arguably more important — and even more enduring — than Brown’s.
“[T]here were few people who could rival the seventy years of influence Stanley Mosk had on the evolution of California law, the administration of justice, politics and social policy,” write co-authors historian Jacqueline R. Braitman and law professor Gerald F. Uelmen in “Justice Stanley Mosk: A Life at the Center of California Politics and Justice” (McFarland, $45). “The City of Los Angeles, the State of California, indeed the United States of America had all been changed by his life, in ways both subtle and dramatic.”
Braitman’s and Uelmen’s biography, both scholarly and spirited, for example, tells of how, as a Superior Court judge in 1947, Mosk issued the courageous ruling that invalidated covenants in grant deeds restricting resale of a property to members of racial minorities, a stain of legalized racism that can be found in countless residential chains-of-title across Southern California, including the one to the house in which I live today.
Mosk was, among other things, the longest-serving justice in the history of the state high court (1964-2001), and it was there that he wrote himself into both law and history. “The real monuments to Stanley Mosk … lie in the pages of the official California Reports, where the opinions of the California Supreme Court are available for public inspection,” explain the authors. “The crisp logic, passion and eloquence of Justice Mosk’s majority and dissenting opinions continue to influence the law of California and the nation.”
When Mosk was elected to the office of attorney general in 1958, he was the first Jewish statewide office-holder since the Gold Rush era. “In many ways, Stanley Mosk was the archetypal Jewish liberal,” the authors explain. “His progressive-liberalism reflected a shift by many in the secular Jewish immigrant community whose politics emerged from historical exigencies as well as religious tenets.” He was born in 1912 in San Antonio to a family of recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; he was known by his first name — Morey — until he changed his full name to Stanley M. Mosk when he first ran for public office. But his interest in politics started early, when Stanley and his younger brother, Ed, started an autograph collection: “The Mosk brothers wrote to every elected official alive, senators and congressmen, surviving presidents and vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, and anyone else they could imagine to add to their collection of autographed envelopes….”
As it turned out, the adolescent Mosk grew up to be a public figure of remarkable sweep and influence. “Nearly every political campaign of note, from the rise of Earl Warren and Richard Nixon, through the administrations of governors Goodwin Knight, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis directly involved Stanley Mosk in one way or another,” the authors point out.
To their credit, the authors do not neglect the rare moments of tumult that boiled up in Mosk’s long career of public service. In 1964, Mosk was the likely choice to fill the Senate seat of the dying Claire Engle, until an LAPD surveillance report from 1958 suddenly surfaced in the media — Mosk, it was alleged, had attended a “freak party” at the West Hollywood home of a convicted bookmaker in the company of “a rogue’s list of individuals who were alleged to be ‘sex degenerates’ and ‘advocates to the Communist Conspiracy.’ ” One of those rogues turned out to be an attractive 20-year-old woman with whom Mosk had conducted a long-term affair.
“The double life he led for so many years is an important window into a full understanding of the man,” the authors write. “Despite his judicial and political experience, he may have been somewhat naïve in viewing romantic dalliance as unrelated to his official duties. He was also a partner in a marriage [to his wife, Edna] that locked two very ambitious people together in a powerful political alliance, but may not have offered much intimacy for either partner.” Although they make no apologies for his conduct, they wonder out loud: “Perhaps Mosk was a closet hippie, who was born a little bit too early to roam the Sunset Strip. Perhaps he was truly in love.”
Fatefully, the scandal that cost him a shot at the Senate did not deny him a seat on the California Supreme Court. At the age of 52 he took the oath of office, and he would spend the next 37 years on the high court, “longer than any Justice before or since.” By the year 2000, he had written some 1,436 opinions, thus making him “the most productive justice in the history of the court.” What we learn from “Justice Stanley Mosk” is that Mosk was not only a prolific jurist, but a consequential one, and the world we live in today has been shaped in significant way by his life and work.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.