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Rose Bird

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 later.

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)

Remains: Cremated

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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