Capitol Alert

Former California Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas dies at 89

State Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Lucas is shown in his office in San Francisco in this 1987 file photo.
State Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Lucas is shown in his office in San Francisco in this 1987 file photo. AP

Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, who took over at a critical moment after three justices were ousted by voters, died Wednesday. He was 89.

His family said Lucas died at home in Los Angeles Wednesday after battling cancer that had been diagnosed earlier this year.

Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Lucas to the state court in 1984 and elevated him to chief justice in 1987. Lucas stepped down in 1996.

“Malcolm was a wonderful colleague, a man of great integrity and principal, a wise judge, and a valued personal friend,” Deukmejian said in a statement late Wednesday. “I am deeply saddened by his loss.”

The court is broadly seen as having tacked to the right during Lucas’ tenure.

Among the cases over which Lucas presided were decisions allowing some statements obtained in violation of the Miranda rule to be used in court; upholding legislative term limits; requiring two-thirds voter approval for special district tax increases; barring employees fired in bad faith from suing for damages; and permitting random drug testing of college athletes.

A native of Berkeley, Lucas grew up in Long Beach and lived most of his life in Southern California. He earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Southern California. His great-grandfather was a two-time governor of Ohio and later the first territorial governor of Iowa.

In an interview on Wednesday evening, former Gov. Pete Wilson called Lucas “a fine man and a fine judge, greatly respected even by those who didn’t always agree with him.”

“He was someone who I think took the role very seriously and felt that it was his responsibility as the chief to attempt to provide as collegial a setting as he could,” Wilson said.

He is survived by his wife, Fiorenza Courtright Lucas, two children – California State Librarian Greg Lucas and Lisa Lucas Mooney – and six stepchildren. Services are pending.

Lucas became a judge on the Superior Court in 1967 and a U.S. District Court judge in 1971. During his nearly 13 years on the federal bench, Lucas was given the nickname “Maximum Malcolm” by defense lawyers for his tough sentencing practices.

Deukmejian, a personal friend who practiced law with Lucas in Long Beach during the 1960s, made him his first appointee to the Supreme Court. Lucas assumed the position of chief justice following a particularly stormy period in the state high court’s history.

Chief Justice Rose Bird, appointed by Jerry Brown in his first stint as governor, had outraged a law enforcement community that saw her as an obstacle to enforcing the death penalty. She personally opposed it, and had voted repeatedly to overturn capital punishment verdicts imposed by trial courts. Voters removed her – and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin – from their positions in 1986. Deukmejian elevated Lucas to the chief justice post and the court moved to the right on law enforcement issues.

In a statement at the time, Lucas said the removal of his colleagues “placed considerable pressure on our court as an institution.”

“But in the coming months,” he added, “I will attempt to take steps to heal some of our wounds and restore public faith in our judicial system. I have confidence in the ability of the court to be one of the most respected courts in our nation.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a dean of the law school at UC Irvine, said Lucas was “a very important figure in California judicial history.”

Brown, in a statement, said Lucas “led California’s highest court with a steady hand and probing mind.”

Reynoso, a civil rights lawyer, served on the court with Lucas until his ouster. He recalled Lucas as good colleague despite their differences.

Reynoso, who now teaches at UC Davis, said “as you might have guessed, I probably disagreed with him on some (notable) decisions.”

“He was an honorable man who did a good job of running the court and making sure everybody was heard,” he said. “I ended my tenure on the Supreme Court with great admiration for the work he had done.”

Added Wilson: “They were not run of the mill days for the court, nor the state. He was the peacemaker.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert