Amid one of the most chaotic elections in recent history, when scandals in Washington and daily meetings at the Wye Plantation seem to influence how Californians might respond to local issues like the gubernatorial race and Indian gaming rights, I was summoned last weekend for coffee and blintzes at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club with the state's Senior Associate Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk. Mosk's friends and family wanted me to know there was really nothing to worry about with regard to the jurist's reconfirmation election on Nov. 3. Mosk himself isn't even "really" campaigning, they said, returning every dollar offered him as a campaign contribution. Therefore I should meet with Mosk -- quickly -- so I can see for myself that he isn't worried, so they can all breathe more easily.
I, of course, began to worry immediately. Mosk is California history with a heartbeat. He's the lone Democrat on the Court, its only liberal, and a living reminder of the greatest era in California legal history when our Court was the finest in the nation, a bellwether for individual liberties and establishing legal principles often followed by the U.S. Supreme Court. His cases are taught in law school. He mentored a generation of Jewish activists in dual responsibilities for community and nation --as attorney and head of the United Jewish Fund and as the state attorney general (for which he outpolled Pat Brown). It is said that Mosk was the role model for Tom Bradley; an inspiration in his decision to go to law school. He is still vital, prolific, and sharper than most lawyers half his age.
Meeting with Justice Mosk meant I'd have to face up to how so much has changed, particularly how completely ordinary California's courts have become in the last decade. Once it truly was the court of last resort; today its major role is saying 'yeah' or 'nay' on controversial ballot propositions. A "death penalty" court, is how one wise attorney put it. At this moment, 504 criminal defendants are behind bars awaiting the court to affirm their death sentences. Though Mosk himself has written his share of death penalty opinions ("Unless I can find an error, I have to uphold," he told me), he is still the only liberal on the bench, maintaining a firm grasp on individual liberties and the wall between church and state. A one-man reminder of what has gone and come.
After meeting with Mosk, as it turns out, my reverie went out the window. There's something concrete at stake for Californians on Nov. 3, which goes beyond the good old days: the independence of the judiciary. Two justices -- Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Associate Justice Ming Chin -- have been targeted for defeat by pro-life and conservative Republican forces. This is the most serious attack on the Court since voters in 1986 ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird, along with Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin.
Punishing judges is precisely what the conservative right has had in mind since the Court overturned, by a vote of 4-3 in 1997, a law mandating that teen-age girls need parental consent for an abortion. Right-wing Republicans, including state Sen. Ray Haynes, wanted heads to roll. Haynes told the California Republican Party last spring that Mosk should be forced out along with Chin and George, though Mosk had in fact upheld parental consent. ("I think teen-agers are a different status than adults," he said.) But in the end, this transparent effort to create an all-Republican court backfired.
Mike Spence, the former treasurer of the California Republican Party and a member of Citizens for Judicial Integrity, the group organized to oppose George and Chin, told the Daily Journal that Mosk survived only because of his vote on the parental consent case.
Which is why Mosk, who is personally no longer in the line of fire, is still concerned.
Politics on the Court is one thing, he told me; the mixing of Democrats and Republicans on the bench being healthy. But politics against the Court is another. A judge who lives in fear of recall cannot operate. As it is, George and Chin have each raised nearly $1 million to mount their own campaigns. The 15 justices of the state Court of Appeal have en masse hired a public relations consultant so voters think "yes" rather than "no."
This brings up Mosk's major fear: that the public won't vote at all. Last week's Field poll indicates that as many as 57 percent of California voters are still unsure how they will vote in the four state Supreme Court elections, though all the candidates are running unopposed. Worse, nearly 30 percent of voters stop at the top of the ballot. Finally, an increasingly high percentage now votes "no" just for the fun of it.
For this reason, the time for action is now. Mosk has visited every major newspaper in the state and even made a rare appearance on television. Inevitably, he is asked about Rose Bird. Mosk himself avoided going down with Bird only because he shrewdly declared for re-election after the "No on Bird" campaign was announced. Though he survived, he said, he's been virtually alone, developing a talent for the cautious middle ground.
True, George and Chin are not Rose Bird.
But still, one can't be too concerned. If no one votes for these justices, and the conservative right brings out the "nos," another Bird will fly. Vote yes on the justices.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org