January 13, 2000
The Lucky and the Strong
Saturday evening, during a panel on journalistic ethics sponsored by Young Israel of Century City, an earnest man, referred to by the title "Doctor," suggested that the press was controlled by "liberals" and asked what did I think of that?
"I don't know what a liberal is any more," I said. "Aside from abortion, gays and social issues, it's disappearing every day."
Only a few hours later, my own words -- reflecting a shameful desire to make easy peace with my adversaries -- made me wince. Sunday's memorial for former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, who died last month at 63 from complications of breast cancer, was more than a final tragic good-bye to (in the words of Rabbi Leonard Beerman) a "woman of valor," the first woman to serve on the California high court. It was a reminder of how close some of us are, in these days of Qualcomm millionaires, to losing our way.
For those who do not remember, Bird was removed by voter recall in 1986, along with two other jurists, because of her opposition to the death penalty. As the Los Angeles Times' Henry Weinstein reports, the Bird court overturned 61 of 64 death sentences that came before it.
Her friends, trying to save her, would kid, "Can't you just give us one [death]?" And she would answer, "Yes, if you will be the one to volunteer." The campaign to remove Bird was vicious, personal but always politically motivated, aimed at destroying, among others, the ACLU. Her friend Federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who himself might have been on the high bench had he merely compromised his principles, put it this way:
"The true basis of the highly-organized effort to oust her from office was her insistence on affording fair treatment to working people, the poor, the injured and the disadvantaged."
The eulogies for Bird pulled no punches about what -- and who -- law and justice were about.
Former Justice Cruz Reynoso, who went to his defeat with Bird in that ignominious recall, called Bird's problem her insistence on defending the "politically unloved."
Congressman Howard Berman, who had worked with Bird on farmer worker protection legislation while she served as a state cabinet secretary, went further. Her purpose, he said, was the defense of "the most despised among us, and for that she was despised."
A film clip shown at the service records her telling Phil Donahue, "What looks like a technicality to some people is a right to others."
It was not for nothing that Bird's favorite song was "The Rose," an anthem that was sung at the service by its composer, Amanda McBroom, as an a cappella anthem against injustice.
"You think," she sang, "that love is only for the lucky and the strong." Love is justice, too.
There was a Yom Kippur feel to the crowd, which overflowed the Skirball's Magnin Hall, as attorneys reflected upon Bird's downfall.
Was the one-time Santa Clara public defender set up for defeat by then-Governor Jerry Brown, who cavalierly elevated her not to a safe seat as associate justice but to chief, a position touted for Justice Stanley Mosk. (In his tribute, the Oakland mayor conspicuously avoided second-guessing himself, though he became the butt of a joke: Howard Berman recalled how Bird, after hearing Brown rail on about the perils of materialism, deflated Governor Moonbeam by asking if he would consult his $2,000 Rolex and give her the time.)
Barry Tarlow in those days was head of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a liberal defense group. "Do you want us to stay silent about your appointment?" Tarlow said he asked Bird.
"If you have to disown your friends then the job isn't worth it," Bird responded.
Arlene Colman-Schwimmer, one of Los Angeles' feistiest lawyers, was president of the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles when the unknown Bird's name came up for nomination. "They did to her what they're doing to Hillary [Clinton]," she told me. Alexandra Leichter, known to Bird and others as "Kosher Alice," confessed to doing Bird's famous beauty make-over which led to a close friendship; she shared Shabbat and Succot with Leichter's family and found safe haven in her home. A day before Bird died, Leichter said she told Bird her own father had died. Bird left word with a friend to send Leichter flowers. In her personal life, as well as her politics, Bird was both loyal and liberal.
It has been a long time since I heard the unabashed defense of individual liberties. Bill Clinton, the so-called New Democrat, signed into law a bill which eviscerated habeas corpus. The public has given up -- nay, forgotten -- that the courts are there to protect "the despised." And as a consequence, we are left with narrow-focused ethnic politics, which puts the principles of our fine nation at peril. To paraphrase Judge Reinhardt, we are today confused between who is the "giant" and who are the "pygmies."
That same Sunday night, at a meeting of Armenians and Jews sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, a young Armenian activist urged the fledgling coalition to reach out to other ethnic groups so that the lessons of our several holocausts could be shared. How sad that the European past, and not the American present, is our common denominator. Would such a holocaust-obsessed politics be necessary if universal protections of court and law still had their day?
You're getting my point, I suppose. The answer to the doctor's question of Saturday night -- what is a liberal and why do journalist's tout a liberal line -- should have been clearer, to him and to me.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will speak on "Generation to Generation" for the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance this Sunday at Calabasas Inn. Her email address is email@example.com
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Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.