Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The enduring legacy of California’s Premier Justice Stanley Mosk

This column illustrates that our lives are like electricity, filled with connections.  But to make a connection one has to plug in and flip on the switch.

         But first a caveat:  In this, my 210th column, you will be exposed to bursts of effusive praise for one of California's and the country's premier jurists, Stanley Mosk.  You will also encounter a paean or two for his son, also a jurist of uncommon ability, Court of Appeal Justice Richard Mosk.  That was paean No. 1.

         Next a disclosure:  Close to 50 years ago, Richard Mosk and I sat at opposite ends of the counsel table.  We represented our respective clients in a lawsuit involving a motor home company, (my firm’s client), that had been acquired by a mega corporation, (Richard’s client). The lawsuit was hotly contested, but Richard and I maintained a civil relationship and kept our sense of humor throughout the proceedings.  A friendship developed that has endured to the present. 
         When Richard learned of my appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1975, he asked if I would like his father to administer the oath of office.  I could not imagine a greater honor than to be sworn in by one of the nation's most respected jurists.  On a warm Labor Day, an affable and gracious Justice Stanley Mosk swore me in at Richard and Sandy Mosk's home with family and friends in attendance.  We all downed a glass of champagne or two, and the next day I heard my first traffic ticket case.  I ruled against the pro. per. protesting the charge of an unsafe lane change, immediately establishing my bona fides as a law and order judge.  The pro. per. appealed.  That I cannot recall the outcome of the appeal could mean that my decision was reversed.

         Enough about me.  But before we get back to the Mosks, a disclaimer:  True, I admire the Mosks.  Nevertheless, I apply here, with the same steadfast and undeviating rigor, the fairness and objectivity reflected in my opinions over the past three-and-a-half decades 

         I commend to your reading, Justice Stanley Mosk, A Life at the Center of California Politics and Justice, by Jacqueline R. Braitman and Gerald F. Uelmen (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012). 

         As the book's introduction aptly notes, "The life of Stanley Mosk has much to teach us about politics and justice in America."  Mosk had a part to play in many of the important and "epochal defining moments of the 20th century."  "From his arrival to California in 1933, he was fully engaged in the civic, social and political life of his community, state and nation."  His tenure as the longest serving Justice on the California Supreme Court (1964-2001) afforded him the opportunity to author ground-breaking opinions that reflected impeccable scholarship, superb craftsmanship, and the clear elucidation of constitutional principles of enduring value.

In a well-researched and engrossing narrative, Ms. Braitman and Professor Uelmen tell us the eventful and colorful life story of Stanley Mosk.  Mosk overcame the obstacles of anti-Semitism and fought for civil liberties long before it was fashionable to do so.  He rose to prominence in Jewish and Democratic political circles.  You will be treated to a compelling account of the contentious and irrepressible world of politics in California in which Mosk played a prominent role.  Mosk chaired and served on organizations during the Depression in the 30's that promoted social justice and good government during an era of corruption in Los Angeles when Frank Shaw reigned as mayor.  Many meetings of these reform organizations took place at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.  It was about a decade later when my grandmother often took me to lunch at Clifton’s and afterwards to a movie and the vaudeville show at the downtown Orpheum Theatre.  By that time Stanley Mosk had made Los Angeles a better place.

The engaging account of Mosk's career demonstrates that opportunity is often dependent upon luck, fortuitous circumstance and the talent and ability of the person upon whom luck shines its light.  Mosk's odyssey from Chicago to California and his involvement in social movements and politics led to his appointment as Gov. Culbert Olson’s Executive Secretary.  During the last hours of Olson's term of office, he called Stanley in the middle of the night and told him to fill in his name on the commission for the Los Angeles County Superior Court, making him, at age 30, the youngest superior court judge up to that time ever to sit on the superior court in California.

When a challenger in the next judicial election called Mosk "the child judge," the quick-witted Mosk replied, "Better a child than someone in their second childhood."  Mosk won the election "with the largest vote ever received by a judge in Los Angeles County."  The young, energetic Mosk proved to be up to the job and early on displayed his sensitivity to racial injustice in a decision that enunciated a principle that would become embedded in our country's constitutional law doctrine. 

In Wright v. Drye, Mosk struck down as unconstitutional a racial restrictive covenant in a deed to property purchased by a black couple.  His eloquent opinion presages the masterfully written opinions that he authored years later on the California Supreme Court.  He wrote, "'Our nation has just fought the Nazi race superiority doctrine.  One of these defendants was in that war and is a Purple Heart veteran.  This court would indeed be callous if it were to permit him to be ousted from his own home by using "race" as the measure of his worth as a citizen and neighbor.' … 'We read columns in the press each day about un-American activities.  This court feels there is no more reprehensible un-American activity than to attempt to deprive persons of their homes on a "master race" theory.'"

And can you believe it?  Mosk also wrote a weekly, not a mere monthly column, widely circulated in a number of local papers.  His columns were humorous and informative.  I can only wonder, how did he do it?  

         Mosk became Attorney General of California in 1958, winning the election with the largest margin of victory of any candidate in any contested election in the country.  He formed a Constitutional Rights Division in the office and pioneered enforcement of constitutional rights for all citizens so that minorities enjoyed the same protections as others.  For example, he induced the Professional Golfers' Association (the PGA) to avoid a lawsuit and abandon the "Caucasian Clause" in their contract. 

         Mosk became a figure of national prominence.  He was close to John and Robert Kennedy and other prominent political figures and was touted as the best candidate to represent California in the U.S. Senate.  There were other possibilities for public office that did not materialize.  Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" speaks to the dilemma we face in the choices we make in our lives and careers.  But Mosk chose roads upon which he encountered detours occasioned by the unanticipated vicissitudes of life.  The seemingly endless opportunities that lay open to him ultimately led him to the road he may not have anticipated - the road to the  California Supreme Court where he became one of its most influential and respected jurists. 
         The reader will glimpse some of the maneuvering and drama that occurs in our Supreme Court and how its atmosphere is affected by the personality and administrative skill of the Chief Justice.  The reader gains insight into "The Mosk doctrine," which provides wider, more expansive constitutional protection under independent state constitutional grounds than is provided under the U.S. Constitution.

         The chapters on Mosk's tenure on the Supreme Court are riveting.  The analysis of cases Mosk and his colleagues authored demonstrates that considerations of policy and practicality often support, in part, the court's rationale.  The discussion of Bakke v. Regents of the University of California (1976) 18 Cal.3d 34, authored by Mosk, is particularly incisive.  A particular case can engender derision and criticism from some quarters when it is issued, but with the passage of time garner praise for its reasoning.  Mosk and a majority of the court held that affirmative action based on a racial quota system in college admissions was unconstitutional.  Many came to realize after a clear and objective analysis that Mosk’s rejection of racial quotas in Bakke was in fact consistent with his decision decades earlier on racially restrictive covenants in Wright v. Drye.

         "Justice Stanley Mosk" is a well written biography that will grab your attention and hold it captive.  You can order a copy at www.mcfarlandpub.com. 
         Question:  Do parents pass on their talent and acumen to their offspring?  J.S. Bach and Stanley Mosk prove that they do.  To stay in that absorbing Mosk kind of mood, I next commend to your reading the "Oral History" of Stanley's son, Court of Appeal Justice Richard Mosk, which appears in California Legal History, Journal of the California Supreme Court Historical Society (Vol. 7, 2012), edited by our much-appreciated Renaissance woman, lawyer, composer, musician Selma Moidel Smith. 

In an enlightening interview, Richard's son and Stanley's grandson, Emmy winning investigative reporter and producer for ABC News, Matthew Mosk, asks his father Richard questions about his career.  Richard speaks of his work on the Warren Commission and his experiences as a judge on the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal and offers observations about Stanley Mosk.  Even if I had not written the introduction to Richard's "Oral History," it would be no less readable and informative.

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