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View Point

By Nancye Bethurem

Saturday, March 18, 2000

Wanted: More
women judges

We like to encourage girls to dreams. Yes, we tell them today, you can aspire to any job: doctor, lawyer, soccer star, steelworker, you name it. Unfortunately for our future Sandra Day O'Connors and Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, the reality in Hawaii falls far short of the ideal.

Women are finding it difficult to become judges in our state. Since Ben Cayetano was elected governor, he has had 11 opportunities to appoint new judges. He appointed one woman judge, Sabrina McKenna, in 1995, but has not appointed a woman to the bench since.

It cannot be for lack of qualified women attorneys. For 20 years, 50 percent of William S. Richardson School of Law students have been women, and most law schools in the nation have had similar rates for years.

According to the Hawaii State Bar Association, there are almost 700 women attorneys holding licenses for more than 10 years, as required for appointment to Circuit Court, and more than 900 women in practice for more than five years, qualifying them for District Court appointment.

Ronald Moon, chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, has a better record of appointing women to the bench. Approximately one-third of his District Court appointments have been women. And the federal bench in Hawaii has had no difficulty filling positions with qualified women, notably Helen Gillmor, Susan Oki Mollway and Leslie Kobayashi.

The judicial appointment process is fraught with political considerations, despite a process intended to preserve impartiality. The governor appoints members of the state Circuit Courts, Intermediate Court of Appeals and the Hawaii Supreme Court, choosing among a list of candidates selected by the Judicial Selection Commission.

Similarly, Chief Justice Moon appoints members of the state District Courts, choosing among candidates selected by the commission. No matter how deserving a candidate, the governor and chief justice have sole discretion in making appointments from the lists.

The Judicial Selection Commission itself consists of woefully few women. No woman lawyer has ever served on the commission, whose members are selected by the governor, Senate president, House speaker, chief justice and the state's bar association (by election). The current committee has only one woman member, a non-lawyer, although the governor recently named Amy Agbayani, another non-lawyer, to the commission.

Why should we care about the shortage of women judges? Since our state is diverse, our judiciary must reflect that diversity, or we will feel no ownership of our judicial system.

The shortage of women judges also causes women, both grown and young, to lose out. Women attorneys who apply for judgeships year after year are discouraged, suspicious that an unstated bias impedes their success, and that their turn will never come. Young women get the message not to try.

Of all the professions that should champion equality of the sexes, lawyers should be at the forefront, and the judiciary should lead by example.

Finally, we all lose when women aren't being appointed to judgeships. Justice, wisdom, integrity, courage, fair play and compassion certainly are not the exclusive qualities of men.

Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Robert Klein's retirement creates a vacancy on the state's highest court and provides the Judicial Selection Commission and governor another opportunity to repair the perception of bias. We'd like Governor Cayetano to be able to say to his daughters and to our daughters, "yes, you too can be a judge in Hawaii."

Nancye Bethurem is president
of Hawaii Women Lawyers.

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