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When the California Supreme Court limited the use of stun belts on criminal defendants in courtrooms, it wasn’t the decision that raised eyebrows: It was the lone dissent by Justice Janice Rogers Brown. The 53-year-old Republican appointee lashed out at her fellow jurists, accusing them of “rushing to judgment after conducting an embarrassing Google.com search for information outside the record,” and criticizing them for citing a student law review article and a story from a left-wing magazine. “A high school student who turned in a research paper like that,” Brown wrote last year, “would be unlikely to get high marks for either the distinction or balance of the authorities cited.” Harsh comments, but Brown, the first black woman to sit on the California Supreme Court, isn’t known to mince words, especially when she’s on the losing side. She once alluded to the majority justices as “philosopher kings” when they voided a law requiring minors to obtain parental consent for abortions. In another case she accused them of being “wimps” for letting the legislative and executive branches appoint some of the judges to the state’s lawyer-discipline court. While some lawyers love Brown’s directness, others say her tart dissents could pose problems if, as many believe, she’s under consideration for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. “They’re very acerbic,” says court-watcher Gerald Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, “and raise the question of her basic collegiality.” Others say that’s nonsense. “If a justice strongly believes in her position, I think she should strongly state it,” says Anthony Caso, senior vice president and general counsel of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. “It should be stated in no uncertain terms.” Brown, who declined an interview request, was born in 1949 in rural Alabama, the daughter of a sharecropper. After her family moved to California, she went on to graduate from UCLA School of Law, work for California’s legislative counsel, and then serve eight years in the state attorney general’s office. In 1991, she became Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s legal affairs secretary. Two years later, Wilson nominated Brown to the California Supreme Court, but the state’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission rated her not qualified, presumably because she had no judicial experience. When she was nominated for an intermediate appellate court position in 1995, she got rave reviews and took the bench. Brown joined the high court in 1996 after once again being rated not qualified. At that time the state nominations commission said she lacked sufficient legal and judicial experience for the high court and that she improperly injected her political philosophy into her judicial opinions. As a child of the Deep South, Brown experienced firsthand the rampant racism of the era, but, she’s said in previous interviews, she also witnessed changing times, beginning most prominently when the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public schools with Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954 — six days after her fifth birthday. Brown has had high praise for that ruling, even though it represents the kind of judicial activism she doesn’t advocate. “How could anybody of my background not think that Brown was an extremely good idea whose time had come?” she said in a 1996 interview. “Let’s face it.” But in 2000, Brown shocked civil rights lawyers and black bar groups by writing the opinion that basically affirmed California’s controversial Proposition 209, which banned racial and gender preferences in state contracting and hiring. That ruling, Hi-Voltage Wire Works Inc. v. City of San Jose, struck down a San Jose program that required contractors to attempt to recruit female- and minority-owned subcontractors. “With the approval of Proposition 209,” Brown wrote, “the electorate chose to reassert the principle of equality of individual opportunity as a constitutional imperative.” The ruling horrified civil rights lawyers. Eva Paterson, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, says that, as a black woman herself, she hates to criticize another black woman. “That having been said,” Paterson says, “if Janice Brown were a white man, I would vigorously oppose her elevation to the Supreme Court if for no other reason than her opinion in the Hi-Voltage case, which was very disturbing and had a view of civil rights which does not comport with the civil rights that I hold dear. “It is very painful for me to say this,” she adds, “but if I don’t speak out, other people may feel that it’s racist to speak out, and it’s not.” Still, it’s rulings such as Hi-Voltage that many expect will catch President George W. Bush’s eye. “She’s clearly qualified for the Supreme Court,” says J. Clark Kelso, a professor at Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law. Kelso also says too much is made of Brown’s dissents. “[Experts] don’t talk about the hundred other cases where everybody is agreeing and getting along,” he says. “[They] tend to focus on those isolated instances where real fundamental disagreement flares up.” Of the 115 rulings issued by the California Supreme Court last year, 73 were unanimous. Brown was the most prolific of the court’s seven justices, the author of 23 opinions while also writing or participating in 16 dissents. Cases that Kelso and others believe are among Brown’s most prominent include 1998′s People v. Reyes, in which she wrote the majority ruling that held that reasonable suspicion is not required for a parole search if it is based on a properly imposed condition. They also point to Brown’s dissent last year in Kasky v. Nike Inc. In that case, now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown argued that statements by Nike defending itself against charges that it runs sweatshops overseas should have been protected as commercial speech. She also called on the nation’s highest court to re-examine its 60-year-old policies on commercial speech, saying the current doctrine “fails to account for the realities of a modern world.” Brown’s opinion in the Proposition 209 case drew a rebuke from California Chief Justice Ronald George — a fellow Republican and Wilson appointee. George accused Brown of distorting history by including a long rendition of court rulings on race. “In view of the limited issue before us,” the chief justice wrote, “it is unnecessary and inappropriate to use this case as an occasion in which to attack the analysis and conclusions of pre-Proposition 209 decisions.” It wasn’t the first time Brown and George have clashed. Reportedly, early in her tenure, George advised Brown to tone down her dissents, and to this day it is said they communicate only by memorandum. While that friction will likely be no factor in Bush’s decision, lawyers say Brown’s penchant to issue rulings that range from conservative to liberal could. “There’s something for everyone to pick at on her record,” Uelmen says. “The National Rifle Association will be unhappy with the opinion she wrote upholding our assault weapons law, and a lot of law-and-order people will be unhappy about how liberal she is in criminal cases.” One California judge, who requested anonymity, says that, ironically, Brown could be in trouble for having issued such a strong dissent in the parental consent case — 1997′s American Academy of Pediatrics v. Lungren, in which the majority struck down a law that would have required minors to get permission before having abortions. “Bush is going to appoint somebody that has exactly zero record on the ‘A’ word — abortion,” the judge says. “He’s looking for someone who’s conservative but not particularly controversial.”

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