Thursday, August 7, 2003
‘Superior Court,’ Starring Rose Bird, Mildred Lillie, Arthur Alarcon
By ROGER M. GRACE
The lawyer who portrayed the judge on “Superior Court” had a week off during the first year the series was on the air. Each day of the last week in February, 1987, a different luminary of the California judiciary filled in for the show’s star, William Burns, as part of a tribute to the bicentenary of the U.S. Constitution. And taped remarks were offered each day by a justice of the United States Supreme Court.
This was, obviously, a coup on the part of the executive who put it together. It was Harvey Levin, the show’s managing editor.
Levin, as you might recall, provided outside-the-courtroom explanations during the 12-year “People’s Court” run when Joseph Wapner was the judge. He’s now co-executive producer of the revived version of that show and is seen eliciting person-in-the-street comments on cases.
“I had a stupid idea,” Levin said of his idea for a bicentenary salute, his self-effacing characterization of it amounting to pap.
He was able to line up as guest jurists Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Mildred L. Lillie; a retired presiding justice of that court, Bernard L. Jefferson; and the former chief justice of California, Rose Bird (all now deceased). Also taking turns on the “bench” were Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Alarcon and a former colleague of his on that court, Shirley Hufstedler (secretary of education in the Carter Administration).
To top it off, there was a daily blurb on the Constitution offered by a sitting justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Harry Blackmun (also since deceased).
Lillie, Jefferson, Alarcon and Hufstedler relived roles they had played in earlier times. Each had been a member of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Bird, on the other hand, had not been a member of any trial court, and had held no previous appellate post. That’s part of what made her controversial from the very time Gov. Jerry Brown announced her appointment in 1977.
She remained controversial throughout her rocky reign, which ended in January, 1987 when her term ran out, voters having decided in November to deny the retention bids by Bird and two of her Brown-appointed colleagues.
There was considerable enmity toward Bird on the part of many judges in California, including those of the same political party. Stu Billett, executive producer of both “People’s Court” and “Superior Court,” disclosed that Wapner “was furious that we got Rose Bird” for a stint on “Superior Court,” remarking: “She was not one of Joe’s favorite people.”
So here was the recently deposed highest jurist in the state, play-acting a trial judge, something she’d never been. Levin’s “stupid idea” resulted in a publicity bonanza for “Superior Court,” with the attention centering on Bird.
What wasn’t known was that Bird, at the last moment, demanded script changes. The case selected for her to preside over entailed a library’s decision to ban the Kama Sutra, a book on sex written in India in the 2nd century BC, described by Billett as “innocent but very graphic.”
An assistant to Bird had read over the script and decided it was inappropriate.
Billett said he asked the former chief justice if she had read the Kama Sutra, and she responded in the negative. He recounted telling her:
“You are censoring a book you haven’t read. The whole issue is censorship!”
The week’s effort met with grunts from the Los Angeles Times’ television columnist Howard Rosenberg, who commented Feb. 26:
“Former California Court of Appeals Justice Bernard Jefferson began the week presiding over an abortion-rights trial whose amateurish depiction trivialized the legal issue.
“It doesn’t get much better today for Bird’s book-banning case, whose characters are mostly overwritten, overacted stereotypes. In a real crackup, a librarian breaks down and admits she’s lying a la Perry Mason, and the rest of the treatment is so hackneyed that the First Amendment issue all but drops out of sight.
“The opposing attorneys must fit their closing arguments into a combined 65 seconds—no need to get wordy—and all Bird has to do is stay awake, make an occasional comment and deliver a brief, eloquent judgment.”
Did the ratings of “Superior Court” soar that week? No, Billett responded. The project provided publicity for the show, but not added viewership.
“I don’t think the daytime audience cared that Rose Bird was there,” he said.
A question that remains is how Levin was able to actualize his concept. How did he snare the services of the likes of Arthur Alarcon as pretend judges, and persuade a U.S. Supreme Court justice to go on camera? Tune in next week for the answers.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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