Profile: Judge Janice Rogers Brown

Justice Janice Rogers Brown

California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, a federal judicial nominee, appears in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office May 17, 2005. Reuters hide caption

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Michele Norris talks with Scott Graham, editor-in-chief of the Recorder and CalLaw.com, about California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, President Bush's nominee to a federal appeals court. He explains why some of her opinions on that court have been so controversial.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When the Senate turns to President Bush's judicial appointments tomorrow, the nominations of two women are expected to come up for consideration. Both sit on state supreme courts. One is Justice Priscilla Owen of Texas; we profiled her legal career yesterday. Today, we turn to the other nominee who serves in California.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Judge Janice Rogers Brown has served on the California Supreme Court for nine years. She's regarded as one of the most conservative on the seven-member bench, and she is the first black woman to sit on that court. She was born in the small town of Luverne, Alabama, and her parents and grandparents worked as sharecroppers, though her father later joined the Air Force. Rogers Brown worked her way through UCLA's law school. She then worked in private practice and in the California attorney general's office before joining the California Court of Appeals and later the state Supreme Court.

Scott Graham is the editor in chief of The Recorder, a San Francisco legal publication, and callaw.com. He's written about Judge Brown for several years, and he joins us now.

Scott, what was Judge Janice Rogers Brown's role on the California Supreme Court?

Mr. SCOTT GRAHAM (Editor in Chief, The Recorder): Well, her role is as one of seven members deciding cases for the court. She definitely is the most conservative member of the court, although it's not always a matter of how she votes but the way she says things in her opinions.

NORRIS: Can you tell us a little bit about her style?

Mr. GRAHAM: Her style is--I think some would call it polarizing; others would call it very intellectually vigorous and entertaining. She can be very funny. I remember when she was first on the court, one of her opinions referred to the majority as `having an overactive law-making gland.'

NORRIS: And because she's so prolific, those who support her and those who oppose her have a lot of material to mine now. What other rulings has she made of note? What do you think are those that are likely to come up in this debate?

Mr. GRAHAM: There are a number that stand out in my mind. I think the parental consent ruling is certainly one of them.

NORRIS: That was a case where the California Supreme Court struck down a law that required girls younger than 18 who wanted an abortion to first contact their parents. What role did she play in that case?

Mr. GRAHAM: That was an interesting case because the court originally ruled that the law was valid. And then two members of the court left the court, and two others came in; one of them being Justice Brown. And one of the new members of the court--the court reheard the case, and one of the new members of the court changed his vote. But Justice Brown was one of the three dissenters, and she was very unhappy about the fact that the court was striking that statute down.

NORRIS: She's faced strong opposition going back to 1996, when she was actually nominated for the California Supreme Court. At the time, the California state bar evaluation committee decided that she was unqualified--`unqualified' was their word--to serve because she was, quote, "prone to inserting conservative personal views into her appellate opinions." So this has been going on for quite a while.

Mr. GRAHAM: That's right. It goes back to even before she went on the Supreme Court. Again, it's the style of writing that can tend to ridicule--it reminds me very much of Justice Scalia's writing style. It's very smart. It's very brainy. It's very entertaining. But it also tends to ridicule the losing side and, in some people's view, can cause ill will.

NORRIS: She's in the spotlight right now, but is it possible that the public is not really getting a full picture of Janice Rogers Brown? Those who are opposed to her nomination rarely mention rulings such as People v. McKay, in which Brown was the only California Supreme Court justice to point out the different standards police use when they searched cars driven by black motorists.

Mr. GRAHAM: I think that's absolutely true. I think she is a complex person. I think she's much more introspective than her kind of black-and-white opinions would suggest. And she definitely has issued some opinions that I would call fairly courageous in the criminal justice area where she has been the lone dissenter in cases involving hot-button criminal justice issues, for example, the one you just mentioned.

NORRIS: You're one of the few reporters who's actually interviewed her. She does not normally grant interviews to the press. And Democrats and liberal groups have said that Janice Rogers Brown is, quote, "another Clarence Thomas." Based on your interviews with her, I wonder what you think she would think of that statement. And if she wasn't a woman of color, I'm wondering if that comparison would even be made.

Mr. GRAHAM: I don't think that comparison would be made if she were of a different color. She was certainly one of the more interesting judicial interviews that I've ever done. I had asked her about how she felt about Brown vs. Board of Education, having grown up in the Jim Crow South, but given that Brown vs. Board is regarded by many people as a judicial activist opinion. And she said, `Yes, it was an activist opinion, but how could someone like me say that's not a great opinion?'

So I was impressed that she, you know, could hold two different ideas and recognize that they were inconsistent, but still be kind of processing that in her mind. She was very friendly, very intellectual and, I just have to say, very different than her written opinions.

NORRIS: Scott, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. GRAHAM: You're welcome. Thank you.

NORRIS: Scott Graham is the editor in chief of The Recorder and callaw.com. He joined us from our San Francisco office.

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