Rose Bird BACK

The Supreme Court on Crime

Pro   Con

Since Chief Justice Bird joined the California Supreme Court, in March 1977, the court has upheld convictions in more than 90% of the criminal appeals it has ruled on.1 Of the 1,522 "substantive criminal matters," Chief Justice Bird voted on from late 1984 throughout 1985, she favored the prosecution 86% of the time.2 Chief Justice Bird has made many decisions that are strongly anti-crime: in a 1984 case she concurred in a ruling that gave criminal case juries the power to convict a defendant of a "closely related offense" when jurors could not agree on a verdict on the original charge;3 in a unanimous decision during the same year, the court upheld the constitutionality of a state statute that requires judges, in certain cases, to give a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.4


Criminals are coddled in the California Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Bird is more concerned with protecting the rights of criminals than the rights of victims.5 Chief Justice Bird's record reflects her philosophy that the rights of criminal defendants are greater than the rights of the crime victim and society.6 Between 1977 and 1982 Chief Justice Bird handed down verdicts that favored the defendant in about 75% of the cases reviewed by the court,7 and she has ruled for the defendant 88% of the time in criminal cases.8 Chief Justice Bird has made a series of decisions which represent a soft-on-crime bias, including voting against the constitutionality of the "use-a-gun, go-to-prison" law, voting against the Victim's Bill of Rights,9 and voting to reverse every death penalty case she has reviewed.10

AMA Commentary

Given the complex nature and variety of legal questions posed by the cases the Supreme Court chooses to review, it is difficult to determine if a decision for or against a defendant can accurately be labelled "soft-on-crime" or "hard-on-crime." Generally, those cases in which the court chooses to hear arguments and issue written opinions involve statutory and/or constitutional issues that are not directly related to a defendant's guilt or innocence.

The criminal-case ruling statistics cited about are derived from different samples of the court's entire workload and cover different time periods. Therefore, they are not directly comparable. The following chart illustrates why the pro and con statistics can be interpreted so differently:

For example only, assuming that:
  • 10,000 cases were appealed to the state Supreme Court.

  • The state Supreme Court agreed to review 1,000 of the 10,000 and refused to review 9,000. (The concurrence of a minimum of four justices is required to review a case, and refusing to review a case results in the affirmance of a Court of Appeal's decision.11)

  • Of the 1,000 cases accepted for review, the court reversed 750. (Because the vast majority of criminal cases are appeals from convicted defendants, we will assume in this example that all appeals were from defendants.)

  • The 10,000-case breakdown is, therefore:
    9,000 The state Supreme Court Refuses to review (in effect, acting against the defendant, because the lower court's decisions stand).
    750 In 750 of the 1,000 cases accepted for review, the Supreme Court reverses the lower court, sending the case back for re-trial. The defendant wins a round.
      250 In 250 of the 1,000 cases accepted for review, the original decisions stands. The defendant loses.
    10,000 Total cases
  • From the above assumptions, we get:
    Pro Statement
    Con Statement

    The state Supreme Court ruled against the defendant 92.5% of the time. (Out of 10,000 cases, 9,000 were upheld when the court refused to review them, and 250 when the court affirmed the lower court's decision.)

    The state Supreme Court ruled for the defendant 75% of the time. (Out of 1,000 cases accepted for review by the court, it reversed the lower court's finds 750 times and those cases were sent back for re-trial.)

The 90% statistic cited in the pro argument refers to the court's decisions as a whole, and is derived from over 10,000 criminal case decisions made during the fiscal year 1977-78 through the fiscal year 1983-84.12 The 86% pro figure is derived from 1,522 criminal cases Chief Justice Bird voted on during 1985. In 1,310 of those cases, Chief Justice Bird voted in favor of the prosecution.13

The 75% statistic cited in the con argument refers to Chief Justice Bird's voting record on 166 criminal cases ruled on by the court in written opinions between 1977 and 1982.14 The 88% con figure refers to Chief Justice Bird's voting record, and is derived from 325 criminal cases ruled on by the court in written opinions between 1978 and 1984.15

The state Attorney General, who has declared his neutrality in the November 1986 state judicial confirmation election, said in a speech to the California Newspaper Publishers Association on February 13, 1985, "I do not believe the court is a significant contributor to the crime rate -- up or down..."16

1 Los Angeles Daily Journal, "Rhetoric Over the Bird Court," by Robert Myers, May 16, 1985, p. 4.
2 Survey conducted by Stanley Simrin, Law Offices of Simrin and Moloughney, Bakersfield, CA.
3 Los Angeles Times, "Ruling Adds to Discretion of Criminal Juries," by Phillip Hager, February 3, 1984, 1: p.1.
4 Los Angeles Times, "Court Upholds No-Parole Life Prison Sentences," by Dan Morain, May 25, 1984, I: p. 3, and People v. Geiger 35 Cal. 3d (534).
5 Crime Victims for Court Reform, campaign literature.
6 Californians to Defeat Rose Bird, newsletter, November 8, 1985, p. 1.
7 Los Angeles Daily Journal, "Fat in the Fire," reprinted from The San Diego Union, September 17, 1982, p. 4.
8 Crime Victims for Court Reform, campaign literature.
9 Californians to Defeat Rose Bird, campaign literature, section II E.
10 Californians to Defeat Rose Bird, newsletter, May 1986.
11 Supreme Court of California: Practices and Procedures, Summer 1985, p. 15.
12 Judicial Council of California, 1979 to 1985 Annual Reports.
13 Survey conducted by Stanley Simrin, Law Offices of Simrin and Moloughney, Bakersfield, CA.
14 Gazell, James, "Chief Justice Rose Bird: The Second Scene of a Two Act Play?" Lincoln Law Review, Vol. 12:77, 1981, pp. 89-90.
15 "The Supreme Court Project," statistics compiled by Office of the Kern County District Attorney, Mr. Edward R. Jagels, District Attorney, and Mr. Stephen M. Tauzer, Supervising Deputy District Attorney, Bakersfield, CA.
16 Los Angeles Daily Journal, "Fairness Needed in Justices' Confirmation Debate," by John Van de Kamp, February 22, 1985, p. 4.