STAR-BULLETIN / APRIL 2007
Gov. Linda Lingle addresses the special session of the Hawaii State Supreme Court after the swearing-in ceremonies for new Chief Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Mark Recktenwald and Glenn Kim as a circuit judge. Behind her is Chief Justice Ronald Moon. Moon must leave the bench when he turns 70 on Sept. 10, 2010, unless the state Constitution is changed.
Replacing top judge is Lingle’s jurisdiction
Gov. Lingle will pick the next chief justice unless the people alter the Constitution
STORY SUMMARY »
Gov. Linda Lingle's most significant judicial appointment will be replacing Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who under current law must retire when he turns 70 in 2010.
Although she believes it is too early to say whom she might chose, Lingle talked about the qualities she would like to see in the state's fifth chief justice.
State lawmakers are considering a proposal to ask voters this fall to change the state Constitution and raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 80, which would enable Moon to remain on the job.
But key senators say it is an "uphill battle" to amend the Constitution.
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SECOND OF TWO PARTS
Gov. Linda Lingle says she wants the next chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court to be a hard-working legal scholar who will not legislate from the bench.
Candidates would not be favored if they were prosecutors, "but it wouldn't hurt their chances, either," the Republican governor said in a recent interview with the Star-Bulletin.
Although Attorney General Mark Bennett has been mentioned in legal circles as a top contender, the governor said it is too early to mention any names.
But in explaining the qualities she would like to see in judges, Lingle made clear that she believes they should interpret laws and leave legislation to elected officials.
Her remarks suggest that her appointment of the state's next chief justice could be monumental for the five-member high court. Known for a long tradition of rendering "activist" decisions, the court has been hailed by civil rights advocates but criticized by others as going beyond reviewing and applying the laws.
Lingle's appointment would be the first time that a Republican governor would name a chief justice in more than 40 years. Democratic Gov. John Burns appointed William Richardson in 1966, and Democratic governors appointed the next two: Herman Lum and the current chief justice, Ronald Moon.
The only way Lingle would be prevented from making the appointment is if state lawmakers place on this fall's ballot -- and voters approve -- a proposed constitutional amendment to lift the mandatory retirement for judges who turn 70.
Unless the state Constitution is amended, Moon must retire when he turns 70 on Sept. 4, 2010, about three months before Lingle's term expires.
The state Senate approved a controversial measure last week that raises the mandatory retirement age to 80, and sent the proposal to the state House. But key senators acknowledge that it will be difficult for the amendment to pass because voters rejected a similar proposal in 2006 that eliminated the mandatory retirement provision. Voters rejected the amendment by 80,000 votes, 58 percent to 35 percent.
"It's an uphill battle," said Sen. Brian Taniguchi, Senate judiciary chairman. "I'm not going to die if the bill dies."
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa agreed with the prognosis. "I'm not sure it will make it out of the Legislature because we just put it on the ballot," she said.
Taniguchi maintained that he views the proposal as a civil rights issue against age discrimination and a "compromise" by retaining the retirement age but raising it to 80.
Opponents, including Lingle, contend the measure is aimed at preventing her from naming the next chief justice.
Bennett and City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who opposed the 2006 proposal, submitted testimony in opposition to the current measure before Taniguchi's committee last month.
The proposal's supporters include the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the Japanese American Citizens League.
Republican Sen. Fred Hemmings, who voted against the measure last week, said in an interview that the proposal was "petty politics at its worst."
"I think they (Democrats) will try to do whatever they can to put it on the ballot," he said.
Taniguchi said he believes Moon is doing an "all-right job," but said the motivation behind the measure is not to keep him as chief justice. The senator noted that Moon was a Republican before he got to the bench.
BETS ARE ON BENNETT
The speculation that Bennett will be Lingle's choice has been fueled by his role as a trusted adviser to the governor. In addition, his was one of three names Lingle submitted to the White House for a lifetime tenure as a U.S. district judge here. In 2005, President Bush chose Michael Seabright, now a federal judge, from the list.
The speculation prompted Taniguchi to ask Bennett at last month's hearing about the chief justice's job.
In an interview, Bennett gave the same answer he gave to the senator: If the job somehow opened up now, he would not apply for it.
"My plans right now are, when I'm done as attorney general, to return to private practice and/or teach," he said. "But I would not even begin to speculate about what my feelings might be in two years."
Lingle's appointment would be subject to Senate approval. The Democratic-dominated Senate has rejected some of her appointments, including Ted Hong to the Circuit Court and Randal Lee to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
But if Lingle gets the names for Moon's replacement early in 2010 and her appointment is rejected, she would be able to name another person from a list of four to six names submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission.
If the Senate rejects all of her choices, the commission would chose the chief justice from its list, according to the state Constitution. The commission's selection would not be subject to Senate approval.
Hanabusa said "it's almost positive" that Bennett will be appointed by the governor. She said one of the criticisms is that he is sometimes almost "overzealous" in representing the administration over the legislative and judicial branches. Hanabusa cited his efforts against the mandatory retirement amendment that was placed before the voters by the Legislature in 2006.
"I think people are watching because they have concerns," she said.
Hemmings, however, said he is a "big fan" of Bennett and applauded him for his work with prosecutors and police in pushing for legislation. "It's hard to deny his success and record," Hemmings said.
Another name mentioned is Mark Recktenwald, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was Lingle's director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs before the governor named him chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals last year.
Hanabusa said Recktenwald is considered a good administrator and would have support, but indicated senators might wait to see how he does as the chief appeals court judge.
Recktenwald said he has been chief judge for only about 10 months and is focused on doing a good job. "I haven't given consideration to anything else," he said.
Lingle's appointment would oversee a Hawaii Supreme Court whose history includes expanding the public's rights to beaches and surface waters; recognizing the rights of native Hawaiians go onto private property for traditional religious and food gathering practices; and striking down laws the court believed infringed on the rights of criminal defendants.
In its landmark and highly controversial case, the high court issued a 1993 decision that paved the way for same-sex marriages in Hawaii. That ruling prompted state lawmakers to complain that the court was creating new law, and it led to a constitutional amendment that essentially negated the ruling.
"I continue to try to reflect what the public would like to see in a judiciary, and that is a judiciary that really interprets the laws that elected people pass rather than try to make law as a judge from the bench," Lingle said.
Lingle notes that unlike the three previous Democratic governors, she is not a lawyer who might be familiar with judicial candidates. She suggests that helps bring a fresh prospective to her judicial appointments.
Because her appointments are for 10-year terms, the judges Lingle has selected -- and will select -- will remain on the bench for years after she leaves office.
Lingle said she wants her legacy to be that the courts will be a place where people "get a fair shake."
"I think the very highest achievement you can have for a judiciary is that the average citizen of a state or of a country will get fair treatment no matter who they are," she said.