The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts

The Case of Rose Bird: Gender, Politics, and the California Courts


Rose Elizabeth Bird was forty years old when in 1977 Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown chose her to become California's first female supreme court chief justice. Appointed to a court with a stellar reputation for being the nation's most progressive, Bird became a lightning rod for the opposition due to her liberalism, inexperience, and gender. Over the next decade, her name became a rallying cry as critics mounted a relentless effort to get her off the court. Bird survived three unsuccessful recall efforts, but her opponents eventually succeeded in bringing about her defeat in 1986, making her the first chief justice to be removed from the California Supreme Court.

The Case of Rose Bird provides a fascinating look at this important and complex woman and the political and cultural climate of California in the 1970s and 1980s. Seeking to uncover the identities and motivations of Bird's vehement critics, Kathleen A. Cairns traces Bird's meteoric rise and cataclysmic fall. Cairns considers the instrumental role that then-current gender dynamics played in Bird's downfall, most visible in the tensions between second-wave feminism and the many Americans who felt that a "radical" feminist agenda might topple long-standing institutions and threaten "traditional" values.


In fall 2010 former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman was the Republican candidate for governor of California. At campaign stops across the state, she accused her Democratic opponent, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., of being “soft on crime.” As evidence Whitman cited Rose Elizabeth Bird, whom Brown had appointed chief justice of the state supreme court thirty-three years earlier in his first iteration as governor.

Whitman could be forgiven for believing that her audience would understand the reference. For more than two decades, beginning in the late 1970s, Bird had been California’s most controversial figure, responsible, according to critics, for keeping vicious killers alive and making it hard to do business in the state. Even after she left the court and became what friends deemed a tragic recluse, Republican candidates continued to use her as a “perennial bogy-person,” useful for stirring up fear and anger among voters. But ten years into the twenty-first century, relatively few people still remembered Bird. “What a pretty name,” one young woman responded, shaking her head in puzzlement. in the end, Brown easily defeated Whitman.

Rose Elizabeth Bird was forty years old when Brown tapped her to become California’s first female supreme court chief justice in February 1977. She already had a history of firsts behind her: first female law clerk of the Nevada Supreme Court, first female deputy public defender in . . .

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