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Whitman turns to Rose Bird to criticize Brown's past judicial appointments

July 30, 2010 |  3:32 pm

Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman on Friday raised the specter of Rose Bird to argue that she would make better judicial appointments than her Democratic rival Jerry Brown.

Brown appointed Bird as chief justice of the state Supreme Court during his first term as governor. Years later, voters tossed Bird and two other Brown appointees to the court who had also opposed capital punishment.

“… No single appointment came to symbolize the failed Brown era more than his choice to serve as Chief Justice of California's highest court: Rose Bird,” Whitman wrote in a column for Fox & Hounds Daily, a website run by conservative Joel Fox. “… the people had to take action to overcome Brown's failure to make sound judicial appointments."

Whitman also released a Web ad highlighting Brown’s appointment of Bird, who served as the chief justice from 1977 to 1987.

The Whitman campaign is raising the issue at an interesting time; current Chief Justice Ronald George just announced his retirement and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated a woman, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, to replace him.

But political observers were unconvinced that Bird, who died in 1999, remains as polarizing and well-known a figure as she was in the 1980s, except to those involved in her departure.

“Any time you’re digging back those many years, unless you can somehow connect the past with the present, it becomes a very difficult thing,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. “I don’t know to what extent the Whitman people will be able to do that.”

Bird was a controversial pick from the beginning because she lacked experience as a judge. Her appointment came as the courts were weighing new efforts to reinstate the death penalty. She voted to overturn capital cases 64 times, leading to a campaign to oust her that featured the families of crime victims. Two-thirds of voters cast ballots to remove Bird, and she became a symbol for a soft-on-crime mentality.

Brown was seen in much the same light during his two terms as governor, though he increased penalties for criminals. He signed legislation that mandated longer prison sentences for crimes in which guns were used, and toughened penalties for sex offenders.

He evolved into a more law-and-order politician during his tenure as mayor of Oakland and his current job as the state’s attorney general, a stance that is highlighted by his current fight with the American Civil Liberties Union over the collection of DNA from adults arrested in California for committing felonies.

Whitman wrote that Brown’s track record of appointments was one of failure, while her experience in business makes her qualified to identify strong judicial appointments. She pledged to appoint judges who interpret laws, do not craft legislation from the bench and are sympathetic to the suffering of crime victims.

“I have the deepest respect for a robust and responsible judicial system, based on impartial judges who will follow the law,” she wrote. “If elected, I will owe an obligation to every Californian to appoint the very best people possible. To do less would be a breach of trust with the citizens of California.”

Brown’s spokesman said Whitman’s claims are laughable.

“Meg Whitman, in addition to having not voted for 28 years, never so much as published an op-ed or took a position on a matter of public policy during that time,” said Sterling Clifford. “The idea that she suddenly has the expertise to identify and appoint qualified judges to make decisions for all Californians is absurd.”

-- Seema Mehta in Los Angeles