By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
The Honorable Kevin S.C. Chang sits in the
Hawaii State Supreme Court room.
can handle it
The man who will rule on theBy Christine Donnelly
fate of Bishop trustees is
held in high regard
Straight-shooter. Impervious to political pressure.
Whether from legal colleagues, adversaries or longtime friends, those words come up again and again to describe Circuit Judge Kevin S. C. Chang, who once again presides over the hottest legal battle in Hawaii.
"People thought he had a tough case with same-sex marriage, but Bishop Estate has turned out to be even more controversial," said civil rights lawyer Dan Foley. "He can handle it. Judge Chang is regarded as one of the finest judges on the state bench today. I've not always prevailed before him, but I've always found him to be intelligent, fair-minded and willing to rule without undue delay."
Tomorrow, Chang is expected to rule whether the five powerful Bishop Estate trustees, each paid $1 million last year, should be temporarily removed in the wake of a threat by the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the charitable trust's tax-exempt status.
Chang already has suspended the trustees' pay and barred them from negotiating directly with the IRS during its audit because he considers them to have conflicts of interest.
The majority trustees have denied wrongdoing and said their removal would plunge the estate into chaos. But critics say the native Hawaiian students at Kamehameha Schools, the estate's sole beneficiary, already are suffering at the hands of trustees who care more about themselves than the school.
If the 45-year-old judge is feeling any pressure from the case, he did not show it last night as he joined four other judges to amiably answer questions as part of a "Meet Your Judges" community forum sponsored by the state Judiciary.
About 120 people attended the forum, during which audience questions were filtered through a moderator. Even though only general queries were allowed -- none on pending, past or future cases -- Chang's answers provided a glimpse of his judicial philosophy.
He generally approves of media cameras in the courtroom because "it makes what we do more accessible and more understandable to the public." He favors mediation or arbitration over litigation when disputing parties are willing to try it. Litigation, he said, often proves "costly, polarizing and can make things worse."
When asked whether judges consider political or economic factors when making rulings, Chang was unequivocal: "No. Judges have to rule on the facts and law before them. It takes courage ... to set those (other) kinds of considerations aside. But it's part of the job, part of the oath, and it's what we do."
A judge should not be so detached that he's unaware of community sentiment, but he must resist letting it sway him, Chang added.
The comments on political pressure seemed especially pertinent given the fate of former Attorney General Margery Bronster, whose reconfirmation was shot down by the state Senate. She said she believed she was punished for taking on Bishop Estate, whose trustees include former Senate President Richard "Dickie" Wong, former House Speaker Henry Peters and Gerard Jervis, a close friend of former Gov. John Waihee.
Judges such as Chang also are subject to Senate confirmation, after being appointed by governors based on the recommendations of a judicial selection commission itself loaded with political appointees.
But some who know Chang, who was appointed by Waihee in 1993 and is up for reconfirmation in 2003, say he is not a political animal and that his past decisions -- notably the unpopular same-sex ruling -- prove he is guided solely by law.
In 1996, Chang ruled the state had failed to show a compelling reason why same-sex marriage should not be allowed. State lawmakers responded by putting the issue directly to voters, who last year overwhelmingly voted to amend Hawaii's constitution to allow the Legislature to ban such unions.
Foley, who represented three gay couples at the center of the case, said it was significant that of the 144 "findings of fact" Chang made in that case, not one was appealed by the state.
"I think that shows how careful he was," Foley said.
Although Chang ruled in Foley's favor in that instance, more recently Chang ruled against him when Foley tried to prevent the attorney general's office from getting Kamehameha Schools admission records as part of the state's investigation into the Bishop Estate trustees. "Even on that case, he was fair and intelligent. And he was affirmed on appeal," Foley recalled.
Steven Sofos, who graduated with Chang from Punahou School in 1971, said "I don't think politics has ever swayed him and I don't think it ever will."
"He's still just like he was in high school, honest, a lot of integrity. I'm glad he gets these big cases. With all the problems of the state on his shoulders, you wouldn't know it by looking at him," Sofos said with a laugh, referring to Chang's youthful appearance.
Sofos, president and CEO of Sofos Realty, said Chang could earn more money in private practice but sought a judgeship "because he wants to make a difference" in the state where he was born and raised.
Before becoming a judge, Chang was a partner in the Honolulu firm of Watanabe, Ing and Kawashima and before that was a deputy Honolulu city prosecutor.
He was admitted to the Hawaii Bar in 1978, having graduated from law school at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, where he also received an undergraduate degree.
Chang is married and the father of a 23-year-old stepson. In his free time he enjoys playing basketball and tennis, although he ruefully admits to having less free time these days.
"I'm on my way back to work right now," Chang said as the community forum ended last night. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Like others, though, lawyer Beadie Dawson said Chang's rulings speak for themselves. "He's really distinguished himself as a very courageous judge who's not afraid to rule on the difficult issues," said Dawson, a critic of Bishop Estate.
"That's not to say I've agreed with every ruling. But he does his homework and rules quickly, which both sides can appreciate."
Bishop Estate archive