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Stanley Mosk, the California Supreme Court’s iron horse, died Tuesday. He was 88. In the 58 years following Mosk’s appointment to the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench, he would serve two terms as California’s attorney general, abort a run for the U.S. Senate and go on the longest run of any supreme court justice in the state’s history. “Mosk was a giant in the law,” said Chief Justice Ronald George in a statement. “He’s a fixture and a symbol of stability and continuity to the court and to many of us here,” added Beth Jay, George’s principal attorney. “He’ll be greatly missed.” “This is a sad day for all Californians. We are all beneficiaries of his extraordinary wisdom and foresight,” Gov. Gray Davis said in a statement. “As attorney general and later as the longest-serving associate justice of the California Supreme Court, Stanley Mosk fought vigorously to preserve our freedoms and defend the Constitution.” Mosk’s death creates the first opening on the high court in five years and provides Davis with his first supreme court appointment. Karl Olson, a former Mosk extern, said Mosk was “a judge’s judge and a giant of California jurisprudence. No one in the history of the California Supreme Court has made more of an imprint on it than he did. He combined great intelligence, a keen wit, an eloquent and occasionally biting writing style, courage and compassion. He maintained an even keel through 37 years in which the direction of the court changed many times. We will not see his like again.” While his tenure on the court is a feat not likely to be duplicated, he will be remembered more for being one of the most progressive and politically astute justices in California history. In his almost 37 years on the supreme court, Mosk paved a liberal path with opinions advancing civil rights and consumer protections, expanding tort law concepts, and bolstering protections for criminal defendants. But he bucked liberal ideology on issues like affirmative action and parental consent for abortion. And although Mosk said many times that he was personally opposed to the death penalty, he probably signed more death penalty affirmances than any other justice in California history. A New Deal Democrat, Mosk saw himself as the voice of the common man and protector of the downtrodden. He was also the court’s biggest dissenter during the conservative Lucas Court years that followed the 1986 ouster of three of his more liberal colleagues. But even as his power ebbed and flowed as the make-up of the court shifted around him — Mosk shared the court with 12 Democrats and 18 Republicans — he frequently cobbled together important and influential majority opinions. Mosk had said he was most proud of 1978′s People v. Wheeler, 22 Cal.3d 258. In that case Mosk ruled that peremptory challenges could not be used to dismiss jurors because of their race, a holding position later adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court. His reasoning in another case, 1976′s Bakke v. Regents, 18 Cal.3d 34, in which he ruled that a minority admissions program at the UC-Davis medical school violated the equal protection clause, infuriated liberals. It, too, was later adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mosk would later say that for four years he lived in fear that Allan Bakke would give up the pursuit of medicine or flunk out. When Mosk traveled to the school to deliver a speech, students turned their backs on him in protest. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his pioneering use of independent state grounds to expand rights beyond U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the federal constitution. He kept in his chambers a coffee can bearing the label “independent state grounds.” PROGRESSIVE PIONEER Born in 1912 in San Antonio, Texas, Mosk moved at an early age to the furniture manufacturing town of Rockford, Ill. It was there, friends say, that Mosk first developed his compassion for the underdog and showed his knack for politics when, as a Jew in a mostly Scandinavian town, he won his senior class presidency. He later went on to the University of Chicago and its law school before moving with his family to Pasadena, Calif., in the 1930s. There Mosk opened his own small firm on L.A.’s Spring Street, taking any case that came through the door, he once recalled. In 1938, Mosk began to carve out his future in Democratic politics by working to elect Culbert Olson as governor. Olson, a state senator from Los Angeles, went on to win the election and invited Mosk to serve as his executive secretary and legal adviser. At the age of 27, Mosk jumped at the opportunity and was soon in Sacramento with his pregnant wife Edna. In 1942 Olson lost his bid for a second term to future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. One of his last acts as governor was to appoint Mosk to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Before Mosk got around to filing the appropriate papers, Olson had a change of heart and promoted him, making Mosk, at age 30, the youngest person to ever sit on the Superior Court bench. Mosk was challenged in the next election by a World War I vet, Leroy Dawson, who attacked Mosk by saying, “We should not have a judge in his childhood.” Mosk replied: “Better a judge in his childhood than one in his second childhood.” He was re-elected by what was at the time the largest margin in history for a contested superior court election. Mosk would stay on the court for 16 years, leaving briefly to serve in World War II. Though nearsighted, he memorized the eye chart and joined the Army Transportation Corps, rising to private first class. According to his son Richard — also an attorney — Mosk was thrilled when years later he was introduced at an event in the following way: “General Mosk, I would like you to meet Omar Bradley.” In one of his most controversial rulings at the trial level, Mosk found that a racially restrictive covenant was unconstitutional and ruled against a homeowner in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park area who wanted out of a contract to sell his home to a black World War II vet. “We read in columns in the press each day about un-American activities,” Mosk said in his ruling. “This court feels there is no more reprehensible un-American activity than to attempt to deprive persons of their own houses on a ‘master race’ theory. “Our nation just fought against the Nazi race superiority doctrines. One of these defendants was in that war and is a Purple Heart veteran. This court would indeed be callous to his constitutional rights if it were now to permit him to be ousted from his own home by using ‘race’ as a measure of his worth as a citizen and a neighbor.” In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court would affirm that decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1. And that same house would later be owned by Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’ first black mayor. But Mosk tired of the trial court after 16 years. So in 1958 he spent $85,000 running for attorney general, beating out state Sen. Robert McCarthy in a contested primary and going on to defeat Richard Nixon protege Pat Hillings by 1.25 million votes in the general election. He won a second term in 1962, again by more than 1 million votes. As AG, Mosk personally, but unsuccessfully, argued for California to get a larger allotment of water from the Colorado River before the U.S. Supreme Court. At one point, while being grilled by the justices, Mosk said, “The issue is the use to which Colorado River water is to be put: for people in California or for asparagus in Arizona.” Mosk would later say the justices seemed to prefer asparagus. But a major victory for Mosk as AG came when he pressured the Professional Golfers’ Association to eliminate its “Caucasian only” clause, arguably paving the way for the likes of players like Tiger Woods, an African-American and Asian who is now the sport’s most recognized player. In Mosk’s final year as AG, he hired a young graduate of Stanford University Law School by the name of Ronald George. Meanwhile, Mosk set his sights on the U.S. Senate, with the early encouragement of President John F. Kennedy. Mosk led in an early poll. But according to a news story published in the San Jose Metro, and in Betty Medsger’s book on the Rose Bird Court, “Framed,” Mosk pulled out of the Senate race after Alan Cranston’s campaign threatened to reveal that Mosk was having an illicit affair. Richard Mosk sharply disputed the story to the Metro. Pat Brown then appointed Mosk to the California Supreme Court, ending Mosk’s Senate bid. Although Mosk’s political career ended just six years after it began, admirers and critics say his political smarts came in handy throughout his judicial career. “Stanley was and always will be a politician,” former supreme court Justice Otto Kaus once said. “He has undoubtedly come into contact with more people [through campaigning than] any appellate justice on the California Bench. [He had] an instinctive feeling for what would sell.” At no time was that political savvy more needed than during the Bird Court years from 1977 to 1986. Though the court under Chief Justice Rose Bird was criticized as soft on crime — especially when it came to imposing the death penalty — Mosk managed to escape the wrath of the voters, who pulled fellow liberals Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin off the bench in 1986. Some liberals have accused Mosk of edging to the right as the retention vote neared by signing on to death penalty affirmances to distance himself from the Bird camp. Mosk always said he didn’t know why he wasn’t targeted as fiercely as his colleagues. “I suspect maybe they looked at my life expectancy and figured they would get my seat soon, anyway,” Mosk joked eight years later. Most lawyers, academics and former colleagues resist saying that Mosk sometimes let his political instincts dictate his votes on the bench. But Professor Stephen Barnett of U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law has said Mosk’s political instincts sometimes colored his opinions. “His ideology is constrained by his awareness of political reality,” Barnett told The Recorder in 1994. “His chief fault is that he’s been a bit too political — more concerned with results than with reasoning and consistency,” Barnett said then. “This has been true on his normal liberal track and when he was trimming his sails for the 1986 election. As a result, for all his talent and years of service, he won’t leave much of a coherent judicial product as his legacy.” In a 1994 interview, Mosk himself rejected the notion that courts must let the law evolve gradually in order to maintain public confidence. “When it comes to fundamental rights, basic constitutional guarantees, I don’t think there’s any moderation that can be expressed,” he said. “One has a right of free speech or he doesn’t. One has a right to due process or he doesn’t. I don’t see how you can take it easy or slowly or moderate these guarantees.” Still, Mosk was conscious of public perceptions. “You have to remember that we’re writing opinions and deciding issues … for the benefit of the public,” he said. “And therefore, opinions ought to be understandable, not only by professional people, but by lay people as well.” Former clerk Robert Roden once called Mosk a paradox. “By his own admission he’s politically facile, but he’s not a political judge in that he does not go in with an agenda. He is what most people would want a judge to be.” Mosk’s great body of work will leave legal historians much to debate when defining his legacy. “People throw around the term ‘giant’ frequently,” said Horvitz & Levy partner David Ettinger. “But this is one of the few cases where the title applies. He really was one of the giants. And it’s not just the quantity but also the quality of his service.” He added, “If there’s any theme that runs through the thousands of opinions in all these years, it’s a general compassion for the people of this state.” Mosk’s former court colleague Armand Arabian called Mosk’s 37-year career “a great act of humanity.” He said judges all over the country held Mosk in high regard, recalling a judicial conference the two attended in Washington, D.C., at which every minute it seemed a judge would come by to “say hi to him, thank him for something, congratulate him for something else.” Although on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Mosk joined Arabian’s dissent in Smith v. Regents of University of California. Arabian said he keeps in a scrapbook the note Mosk sent to him afterward, “Armand, I wish I’d written it.” Arabian and Mosk shared adjacent chambers while the court was at temporary quarters in Marathon Plaza. Each Wednesday morning before the court’s weekly conference, Arabian recalled, he would poke his head in Mosk’s chambers and say, “Stanley, it’s show time.” “He’d look up and say, ‘Oh, all right, son.’ He’d get his papers and together we’d walk to the chief’s chambers.” Asked by a former staff attorney about his imprint on California jurisprudence, Mosk responded: “I just hope I’ll be measured by the quality of the opinions I’ve written, and I hope they’ll have made some contribution to California jurisprudence.” But Mosk was careful not to take himself too seriously. Asked by a judge at a 1997 judicial conference why he stayed on the court so long, Mosk deadpanned: “The steady paycheck.” In an informal interview with The Recorder two weeks ago, Mosk said part of the reason he hadn’t retired is that he didn’t know what he wanted to do after leaving the bench and had no desire to sit at home and do nothing. He said he had some interest in writing a book, though he said he wasn’t sure what he would write about. He repeated that he was most proud of Wheeler and Bakke, but added that he’d always felt bad that Bakke upset minorities as much as it did. Still, he said it was the right ruling. Mosk is survived by his wife, Kaygey, his son Richard, his daughter-in-law Sandra Mosk, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A private funeral service will be held in Los Angeles. The supreme court will hold a memorial session in the fall.

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