Thursday, June 21, 2001
Legal Community Remembers Mosk as ‘One of the Greats’ of State History
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Judges, lawyers and political figures in Los Angeles and around the state remembered the late California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk yesterday as an intellectual giant who symbolized a liberal, but often pragmatic, approach to justice.
“He had his own view of things,” Pepperdine University School of Law Professor Doug Kmiec said. “He was an independent mind. He would take each case as he found it, not with a predetermined conception, but with a desire to do justice. He was applauded by conservatives and liberals alike during his career. That’s a hallmark of a judge who is doing something right.”
Mosk died Tuesday of undisclosed causes at age 88. A former Los Angeles Superior Court judge and state attorney general, Mosk served on the state Supreme Court for 37 years—the longest tenure in state history.
His grandson, Washington Post reporter Matthew Mosk, told the MetNews that private services are planned, but that further arrangement await the return of the justice’s son, Los Angeles attorney Richard Mosk, from out of the country.
Flags around the state are to be flown at half staff beginning today. Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Robert Dukes said he had asked each of his court’s more than 600 bench officers to adjourn today in Mosk’s memory.
Mosk was a graduate of Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, and the school’s assistant dean, Chris Cameron, said the justice had a special place in the hearts of Southwestern’s family.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Justice Mosk is our most illustrious graduate,” Cameron said. “He was the last of the real intellectual giants to serve on the court.”
Along with Chief Justices Roger Traynor and Matthew Tobriner, Cameron said, Mosk paved new ground in California law and attracted national recognition for the state’s Supreme Court. But Cameron said it was his intellectual prowess, and not any rote ideology, that made him special.
“He was a man who protected individual and individual merit,” Cameron said. “He was sometimes wrongly pigeonholed as a liberal. He believed people should be evaluated on the basis of their individual merits.”
Kmiec said that Mosk, who was “one of a kind,” was especially careful in the area of individual rights.
“Many California lawyers associate him with opinion writing which affirmed individual rights not only under the U.S. Constitution, but especially under the California Constitution,” Kmiec said. “In his perspective the right of the state meant to guarantee the right of the citizen. He was able to carve out areas of protection for the California citizen.”
Mosk helped shape the Traynor and Tobriner courts with opinions that for the first time put California in the vanguard of jurisprudence, especially in tort law and criminal justice.
But he also may be remembered for his authorship of the Bakke opinion that outlawed racial quotas in University of California admissions and by extension in a host of other areas. The opinion is seen by many as the opening salvo in the battle to end affirmative action.
Stood on Principle
“He stuck by his position even if others didn’t agree with it,” Second District Court of Appeal Justice Norman L. Epstein said. “For people who like to pigeonhole people into stereotypes, the view he took in that case was not one you would expect from the stereotype.”
USC Law School Professor Erwin Chemerinsky said Mosk will likely be remembered as a liberal, although not in the same way that U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall are remembered as liberals.
“He wrote the opinion that allowed for the death penalty for federal murder in California, and that isn’t what one usually thinks of as liberal,” Chemerinsky said. “He wrote the opinion that would have allowed parental consent for minors’ abortions, and that isn’t what one usually thinks of as liberal. Remember, he was also a justice who was up for re-election at the same time as Rose Bird and two other liberal justices, who were removed by voters, and he survived.”
Loyola Law School Professor Peter M. Tiersma said Mosk’s death meant the “important legacy” that started with Traynor and Tobriner had come to an end.
“Together, they put the California Supreme Court on the map,” Tiersma said.
Known for his polished opinions and way with words, Mosk relayed not only what the opinion was but why it was that way in his own unique way.
“Whether you agree or disagree, it’s a well written exposition,” Epstein said. “His work was marked by how well crafted it was.”
Mosk wasn’t only revered with his way with words on paper, but also his ability to argue the issues with colleagues.
“He could take up a position contrary to others, but still maintain respect for the other point of view,” California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter said. “Any disagreement was left at the table.”
This ability to walk away from a disagreement as if there had been no disagreement at all was just part of his gentlemanly personality, colleagues said.
“He was a thoughtful and sensitive human being, but above all he was a gentleman,” California Court of Appeal Second District Presiding Justice Division Seven Mildred Lillie said.
Lillie first met Mosk when her husband became very involved in Mosk’s Southern California campaign for attorney general.
“He was very practical and down-to-earth,” Lillie said. “He looked at legal problems in relation to the real world and I respected him for that.”
Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer recalled meeting Mosk shortly after being admitted to practice.
“When he was elected to attorney general he was the first attorney general to create a special section specifically for civil rights,” Spencer said. “He set up a five-person advisory division and he appointed me to that. I worked closely with him for several years. The advisory panel met once a month. I was on it until I was appointed to the bench in 1961,” she said.
Mosk’s stature extended beyond the world of law. Kevin Starr, California’s state librarian and the author of numerous books on the state’s history and culture, called Mosk “one of the last living links to that period of tremendous optimism that began in the post-war era, with governors like Goody Knight and Pat Brown.”
Although Mosk was a staunch Democrat, Starr said, and participated in making the party more liberal, he came of political age in an era of cross-filing, when there was little ideological difference between Republican governors like Earl Warren and Knight and Democrats like Brown.
“It was this group that took California from being a small-populated state into a world-class commonwealth,” Starr said.
A real-world approach is what earned Mosk respect when he served as Attorney General of California, a position he held from 1959 until his appointment to the California Supreme Court in 1964.
From the moment he arrived at the office Mosk started making changes to reflect his interest in protecting civil and individual rights, even creating a special section specifically for civil rights.
“Mosk inherited a clean office and made it a better office,” Epstein, a former deputy attorney general, said. “It was a place of real integrity where what counted was following the law and doing the right thing instead of doing what some politician wanted you to do.”
Despite a hard-nosed approach to carrying out justice, Mosk was notorious for his wry wit and ability to turn the tables.
California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin recalled hearing Mosk tell of having to defend his seat on the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Being the youngest member of the court, Mosk’s opponent challenged that “a child should not sit on the court.” Without missing a beat, Mosk retorted “better a child than someone in their second childhood.”
Joseph Cerrell of Cerrell Associates Inc. worked for then-Attorney General Pat Brown when Brown ran for governor in 1958, an Superior Court Judge Mosk ran to succeed Brown.
“I really liked this guy,” Cerrell said. “Yeah, the fat left always thought he should be more liberal. But it sometimes surprised me, the adulation he received. He wasn’t a backslapper. But he liked people, and they liked him.”
Cerrell, who went on to become Mosk’s administrative assistant and executive director of the state Democratic Party, said there was a time – during the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign —when Mosk may have seriously entertained the notion of one day becoming the nation’s first Jewish president.
“With Kennedy, as a Catholic, being elected, we were thinking maybe this was possible,” Cerrell said.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company