personal integrity and resolve.
Chief Justice Ronald George called Bird a trailblazer on the court,
which now has three women justices. As a jurist, she was a strong and eloquent
advocate for her views, George said.
Bird was only 40 when she was named to the Supreme Court by former
Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1977 after serving as his secretary of agriculture and
The appointment was immediately controversial, and Bird faced
opposition from critics because she had never served as a judge and because she was a
woman. Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, who chaired the state Agriculture Labor
Relations Board and with whom Bird clashed repeatedly, questioned Birds
emotional stability. Then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson warned that she would be
the champion of criminal defense attorneys.
Despite the opposition, Bird was confirmed by the Commission on
Judicial Appointments and began a tenure marked by rulings favoring tenants, consumers and
employees, and an unyielding refusal to impose the death penalty.
opposition to capital punishment was based on a belief that the death penalty is applied
disproportionately to blacks and other minorities. We need to continue this dialogue
with the people of California to let them know that the rule of law has to apply not only
to the weak, but to the powerful, and not only to the popular, but to the unpopular as
well, she wrote of the death penalty.
Bird dissented from a ruling upholding the tax-slashing Proposition
13, arguing that the initiative was unconstitutional because it treated owners of similar
property unequally, based on when their property was purchased.
She concurred with a decision granting public employees the right to
strike, but went further by saying they have a fundamental constitutional right to strike.
Bird grew up poor in Arizona and New York, but won a scholarship to
Long Island University, graduated magna cum laude and later enrolled at Boalt Hall. Then
began a series of legal firsts: first woman law clerk at the Nevada Supreme
Court (where Justice David Zenoff pronounced her intellectually marvelous),
first public defender in Santa Clara County (where she became chief of the appellate
division), first woman to teach law at Stanford University, first woman to hold a
cabinet-level position in California, first woman chief justice.
Bird herself claimed to be under attack from the moment of her
In a 1986 interview, she said, Ive always said when
youre the first of your sex or race in a position, three things apply to you. One,
youre always placed under a microscope. Two, youre allowed no margin for
error. And three, the assumption is always made that you achieved your position based on
something other than merit.
After leaving the court, Bird led a quiet life out of the public eye.
She lived with her mother until her death in 1991 in a Palo Also cottage. She gardened,
swam, walked her dog, and for awhile, volunteered at the East Palo Alto Community Law
Project, where she remained anonymous, helping with clerical work, until someone realized
who she was.
Bird suffered from cancer for more than 20 years. She underwent a
modified radical mastectomy in 1976 and a full mastectomy 20 years later.