Friday, March 13, 1998

Bishop Estate decision was unavoidable

AFTER months of prodding and a final nudge by its own Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state Supreme Court justices have disqualified themselves from presiding over cases stemming from the recent Bishop Estate controversy. Their decision should produce a sigh of relief among those involved in the cases with the knowledge that they will be treated with impartiality.

Attorney General Margery Bronster approached the justices informally as early as December and in a formal motion in January about stepping aside and being replaced by alternate justices to hear Bishop Estate cases.

The five justices finally asked the opinion of the commission, whose members are themselves appointed by the Supreme Court. Three of the commission members declared their own conflicts, leaving the decision to the remaining four members, only one of whom - Gerald Sekiya - is a lawyer. The commission correctly advised the justices to disqualify themselves from the proceedings, but for the wrong reason.

The commission found there were no legal or ethical reasons for the justices to step aside, but they should do so anyway to maintain public confidence "in the current overheated circumstances." Bishop Estate attorney William McCorriston described the commission's reasoning as "baloney." The description was accurate because the commission failed to see the obvious ethical reasons that existed for the justices to remove themselves from the cases.

Hawaii's code of judicial conduct requires that a judge disqualify himself or herself "in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned." The fact that the Supreme Court justices appointed the Bishop Estate trustees targeted in Bronster's investigation was easily reason enough for disqualification.

The fact that the justices withdrew from the future trustee-selection process in December did not erase the lingering consequences of the past relationship. It was not unlike the ethical requirement that a judge step aside from a proceeding involving a government agency where the judge previously was an attorney "if the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned because of such (past) association" - an example specifically cited in the code of conduct.

Justices understandably would have been in an uncomfortable situation if asked to determine if their appointments to Bishop Estate trusteeships had been bad ones. Although they took longer than needed, their conclusion that their impartiality in such a situation might reasonably be questioned was unavoidable.


Kauai boating

THE state's decision to join Kauai County in enforcing regulation of commercial boating on the Hanalei River and in Hanalei Bay should make the restrictions more meaningful. Howard Gehring, acting administrator of the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, said the previously uneven enforcement of boating rules will improve.

Commercial boating on the Hanalei River has been a contentious issue for years. Opponents of the operations have complained repeatedly of weak enforcement of the regulations. The new agreement will entail joint enforcement by the state boating division, the state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, the Kauai Police Department and the county Planning Department.

Letters have been sent to commercial boat operators advising them that they will need county special management area permits plus state permits to operate in the Hanalei estuary. Kauai Mayor Maryanne Kusaka has denied claims that her office is working to increase the number of permits.

However, commercial boating critics are skeptical. Ray Chuan of the Limu Coalition said there are loopholes in the policy that would let boaters lacking permits continue to operate, possibly by launching boats without passengers and having passengers wade to boats in shallow water. If so, those loopholes should be closed.

The situation requires a balancing of interests between environmental protection and tourism. Striking an acceptable balance has proved difficult, but it's time to enforce the rules and bring this controversy to an end.


European languages

A report that the University of Hawaii-Manoa was considering dropping all courses in European languages and literature made us blink. In this age of political correctness, so-called ethnic - read that non-European - studies are the rage, but such a drastic step would be unthinkable. Or would it?

A faculty committee actually made a provisional recommendation to reduce or eliminate such courses. Austin Dias, chairman of the European Language and Literature Department, said the committee's final recommendation hadn't been received, but "everybody is very nervous." Students called to ask if they would be able to study German.

Dean Smith, a UH administrator, and Oceanography Professor Edward Laws, both of whom are involved in an effort to seek faculty ideas on restructuring the university, deny that there is any prospect that European language and literature courses will be eliminated. Laws pointed out that such courses are found at virtually every university in the country, "and unless the University of Hawaii wants to be the complete oddball, they will remain here."

There are oddballs at UH, but it appears they haven't quite taken over yet. Still, it's disconcerting that the idea was even broached.

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