Wednesday, March 11, 1998

High court justices should step aside

HAWAII's Supreme Court justices in December announced the end of what had become their inappropriate role of appointing trustees for the Bishop Estate. In their lengthy explanation, however, the justices did not acknowledge that their further judicial involvement in issues related to the controversy leading to their withdrawal from the trustee-selection process would itself present a conflict of interest. Three months later, they remain mystified about a conflict that others agree was the primary reason why their withdrawal from the process was necessary and that still exists.

When appeals of issues stemming from the recent controversy about the trustees headed for the Supreme Court, Attorney General Margery Bronster asked the justices to step aside and offer their bench to a panel of substitute justices to decide appeals of Bishop Estate-related issues. Bronster explained that she is investigating the trustee selection process and may have to subpoena the justices who appointed the present trustees.

Instead of excusing themselves from the proceedings, the justices took the extraordinary step of referring the question to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, whose members they appointed. Unremarkably, three of the seven commission members declared conflicts and excused themselves. The high court awaits the recommendation of the remaining four.

In their December statement, Justices Ronald T.Y. Moon, Steven H. Levinson, Paula A. Nakayama and Mario R. Ramil - Robert G. Klein disagreed about the withdrawal - wrote that the judicial code of conduct "prohibits judges from engaging in charitable activities that are likely to cause conflicts between private and official acts." The judges implied that their selection of the trustees posed such a conflict, but they hesitate now about whether that conflict continues to exist in their consideration of issues affecting Bishop Estate.

It does. The justices' failure to recognize the conflict in considering those issues, just as they described their involvement in the selection process, "will further promote a climate of distrust and cynicism and, more particularly, will undermine the trust that people must have in the judiciary."


Suharto's re-election

THERE was never any doubt that the hand-picked members of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly would re-elect President Suharto to a seventh five-year term. The vote was unanimous and there was no other candidate. That's the way it is in authoritarian Indonesia.

But there is considerable doubt about the future of the country as it faces the worst economic crisis in decades. The president and his family have enriched themselves through government favoritism while the economy soared. Now the corrupt system of crony capitalism is collapsing through a loss of confidence by foreign investors.

Evidently trying to preserve this discredited system, Suharto has been sparring with officials of the International Monetary Fund over the terms of a $40 billion bailout. The IMF has postponed the second $3 billion installment of the loan because of Indonesia's failure to comply with the fund's requirements for economic reforms.

President Clinton sent former Vice President Walter Mondale to express the United States' concern to Suharto, but the Indonesian leader did not yield. Some observers think Suharto believes the IMF would not dare to cancel its loans for fear that chaos might be the result, so he can force the fund to back down from its demands.

There is also doubt that Suharto, who is 76 and in poor health, can serve out his new term. His choice for vice president and possible successor, B.J. Habibie, has been described as a crony capitalist and advocate of protectionism.

The economic crisis has provoked a wave of riots targeting Chinese merchants. There also have been student protests. But the government banned protests while the assembly was meeting, and soldiers have been posted at the gates of college campuses to prevent student demonstrators from leaving.

Suharto could ease the tension by complying with the IMF's conditions and removing restraints on his political opponents. Washington should continue pressing him to take these steps, but success may well depend on support for reform from within Indonesia.


McDougal's death

THE death of James McDougal in a federal prison adds yet another bizarre twist to the Whitewater story. The former partner of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the Whitewater venture in Arkansas, McDougal was considered one of the most important witnesses in the investigation of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. After his convictions on 18 felony charges in 1996, McDougal had described for Starr the alleged role of the president and first lady in the fraudulent Whitewater loans and real estate transactions.

McDougal had a long history of serious illness. He was alone in a cell when he collapsed and died Sunday morning, having been placed in solitary confinement the night before. A prison spokesman said prisoners in solitary are checked every 30 minutes and McDougal appeared normal minutes before he collapsed.

The explanation seems fairly plausible, but conspiracy theorists may claim that the Clintons somehow were responsible. The 1993 death of Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel who handled Whitewater matters for the Clintons, was ruled a suicide but the conspiracy buffs would have none of it.

On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton has charged that a right-wing conspiracy is at work. Take your pick.

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