Rose Bird was a controversial Chief Justice of the
California Supreme Court (March 26th, 1977 - January
1987). She served as the 25th Chief Justice of the
California Supreme Court from the time of her appointment
by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, until her removal
from the bench by California voters nearly ten years
Biographical fast facts
Full or original name at birth: Rose Elizabeth Bird
Date and place of birth: November 2, 1936,
near Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.*
Date, time, place and cause of death: December 4, 1999,
at approximately 3 p.m., Stanford University Medical Center,
Palo Alto, California, U.S.A. (Complications from breast cancer)
Error corrections or clarifications
* Her date of death is erroneously reported
as "December 6, 1999" by a source who also offers the
misspelling "Tuscon" for Tucson, Arizona (her place
of birth). A number of her major obits were published
on Monday, December 6th, 1999, and unfortunately, this
is the date one source reports as her date of death.
The obituaries were very clear: "... died December 4 after
a lengthy illness at the Stanford University Medical
Center." AP reports, "Bird died Saturday," in its Sunday,
December 5th, 1999 article. Another reports she, "died of
complications from breast cancer on Saturday," in its
Monday, December 6th, 1999 report.
NOTE: One of the most common origins of date of death
errors, is the reporting of the date the obituary was
published, as the actual date of death. This is likely
the origin of the erroneous "December 6th" date of death.
Following her graduation from law school in 1965,
Rose Bird became the Nevada Supreme Court's first
female law clerk. It was the first of what would
become a series of trailblazing firsts for the
young lawyer. In 1966, she became the first female
deputy public defender in Santa Clara County,
California. In 1972, while still working at the
public defender's office, she began teaching
criminal and consumer law at Stanford Law School.
She held both these positions until 1974, when
she left with the intent of opening her own law
practice. Instead, Bird became a volunteer for
Jerry Brown's 1974 campaign for governor. Following
his victory, she served as a trusted adviser on
his transition team. The following year, Brown
selected her as his Secretary of Agriculture.
This made her the first woman in California history
to hold a cabinet-level post in state government.
In 1977, Governor Brown appointed Bird Chief Justice
of the California Supreme Court. Though criticism
greeted her nomination because she had no experience
whatsoever as a judge at any level in California, or
anywhere else for that matter, she was still confirmed
by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. Thus she
became the state's first female Chief Justice and
the first woman to ever serve as a justice on the court.
Those who worked closely with the Chief Justice
described her as headstrong, abrasive, prickly,
stubborn and prone to making disagreements personal.
Roger M. Mahony, chairman of the Agricultural Labor
Relations Board, worked with Bird while she was
Secretary of Agriculture. He questioned her "emotional
stability," and her, "vindictive approach to dealing
with all persons under her authority." Additionally,
he reports, "she has a personal temperament which
enables her to lash out at people who do not agree
with her. Her normal approach is to become vindictive,
then to transfer her feelings to a long phase of
non-communication." She even managed to alienate
much of the staff of the state Supreme Court, some
of which had been there longer than many of the
justices themselves. The police groups, prosecutors,
politicians and ordinary citizens who had railed
against her confirmation, didn't have long to wait
before their fears were confirmed. She expanded and
strengthened the rights of criminal defendants and
quickly began to overturn one death penalty sentence
after another. Bird never upheld a single death
sentence, voting to vacate such sentences 61 times.
Supreme court records show that every death penalty
case reviewed by Chief Justice Rose Bird was reversed.
Voters were increasingly fed up with her resolute
opposition to the death penalty and in 1986,
California voters voted overwhelmingly to remove
her from her position on the state's highest court.
In a life full of firsts, she added the dubious
distinction of being the first Chief Justice of the
California Supreme Court to be removed from that
office by a majority of the state's voters through
a confirmation election.
To this day, throughout California, Rose Bird's
name is equated with "soft-on-crime liberals," and
occasionally still used as a descriptor to brand
others soft on crime.
After her ouster as Chief Justice, Rose Bird
became a recluse. She was unable to practice
law in California because her membership in
the California Bar Association lapsed for
non-payment of dues because she could no longer
afford to pay them. One of the most controversial
figures in California politics and the high court's
history, was left to survive on a meager monthly
pension of less than $1,200. Bird retreated to
the Palo Alto home she shared with her mother,
Anne. Her mother was a school teacher and later
a factory worker. Bird's father died when she was
a child. Her mother died at age 86 in 1991.
The former Chief Justice never married, and was
survived by her two older brothers, Philip and Jack.
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