Malcolm Lucas, the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court who led the high court during one its most turbulent political periods, has died at the age of 89, his family announced.
Lucas, a former federal judge and law partner of former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Deukmejian in 1984. At the time, the court had decisive liberal majority.
But two years later, California voters declined to retain three liberal appointees of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown – including Chief Justice Rose Bird – and Deukmejian appointed the conservative Lucas chief justice in 1987. Deukmejian also filled the other vacancies.
The core issue of the campaign was the appointees’ reversals in death penalty cases.
“The new court started upholding death sentences — eventually reaching an affirmance rate of more than 90 percent, the highest in the nation — and also rolled back some long-standing liberal precedents,” wrote San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bob Egelko, who covers the courts.
Lucas was chief justice when the issue of term limits for legislators was raised. Voters approved them in 1990 and Lucas upheld their constitutionality a year later. More than two decades later, voters eased the earlier limits.
California’s 26th chief justice was born in Berkeley in 1927 but grew up in Long Beach. He was a judge for 30 years, appointed to the Los Angeles Superior court in 1967 and the U.S. District Court in 1971.
With his swept back mane of white hair, stentorian voice and measured temperament, Lucas was routinely referred to as being chosen from “central casting” to be a jurist.
While chief justice, Lucas instituted a number of administrative changes that have reshaped how both the state high court and California’s lower courts conduct business.
“Among those changes were efforts to make the courts and its staff more reflective of California’s unique diversity and speed handling of appellate cases. He’s also credited with bringing stability to the court after a period of controversy,” his family noted.
He is survived by his wife, Fiorenza Courtright Lucas, two children and six stepchildren. His son Greg Lucas is the California State Librarian.
Services are pending.