Friday, January 25, 2002

Bush judicial pick
is political hardball

The issue: Honolulu lawyer
"Fritz" Rohlfing has been nominated
to the U.S. District Court.

PRESIDENT Bush's nomination of Frederick "Fritz" Rohlfing to the federal bench is a rejection of a proposal to resolve a dispute over filling a spot belonging to Hawaii at the appeals level. The president's action could prolong a political standoff that has kept the appellate spot vacant for nearly three years and could stall Rohlfing's confirmation.

Rohlfing's credentials will undergo close examination in the months ahead. However, equal attention will be paid to the dispute over Bush's nomination of Richard R. Clifton to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a Republican-controlled Senate refused to act on President Clinton's 1999 nomination of James E. Duffy to the spot. After months of bipartisan cooperation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, politics is back to normal.

Rohlfing's legal knowledge and experience are not widely known. A University of Chicago law graduate, he defended City Councilman John Henry Felix's Aina Haina wedding business, but that is his only case to make the papers in recent years. His is known much more as the head of Aloha Sports Inc., producer of the Aloha and Oahu football bowl games, which left the islands last year.

Rohlfing, 42, is a staunch Republican whose father, former GOP state Sen. Fred Rohlfing, was a member -- along with Felix -- of Bush's 2000 Hawaii campaign committee. The younger Rohlfing was the chief Republican attorney in the state Senate in 1995 and the House 10 years earlier. He was the spokesman for the Citizens for a Constitutional Convention proposal in 1996 to ban same-sex marriage. (The convention proposal failed, but the Legislature later banned gay marriages.)

Rohlfing says he met Senators Akaka and Inouye in Washington during the October trip in which he was interviewed by the White House counsel. Inouye's support may be critical to Senate confirmation of the lifetime appointment.

Hawaii's senior senator has more than passing interest in the 9th Circuit opening because he created it. Inouye's provision to a 1997 budget bill entitles each state to at least one judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals. After the bill's enactment, Clinton selected Duffy to fill the opening.

Inouye has demanded a letter from the Judiciary Committee explaining why Duffy's nomination to the 9th Circuit was not acted upon when the Republicans were in control. Richard Miller, a law professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, has suggested the dispute over Bush's choice of Clifton for the appellate spot could be resolved if he were to nominate Duffy, who has no history of political activism, to the district bench; Bush's decision to name Rohlfing amounts to political hardball.

Signs won’t protect
state from lawsuits

The issue: Officials hope to limit the
state's liability in shark attacks by placing
permanent warnings at a West Maui beach.

Posting warning signs along Hawaii's shoreline may benefit people who are unaware of the dangers of the ocean, but does little to prevent lawsuits against the state. Even with warning signs, the state has been subject to legal action from those injured on beaches as well as hiking trails. What is necessary is legislation that would limit the state's liability when people are hurt in outdoor activities that involve risk.

The state, for the first time, has decided to place permanent signs at Olowalu in West Maui, warning of shark sightings in the area. Although signs are usually posted in an area for 24 hours after a shark attack, they are removed if there are no further sightings. The plan for permanent signs comes on the heels of a New Year's Day incident in which a California man was bitten. There have been two other incidents, one fatal, in Olowalu during the past 12 years.

Olowalu is popular with snorkelers because of its abundant fish and turtles. Some people, particularly tourists unfamiliar with the ocean, may not know that sharks also favor those waters because of the plentiful sea life. The state has an obligation to inform people of ocean hazards, such as high waves, strong currents, jellyfish and sharks, or along trails and other regions where passage may be hazardous, and it does. Even with warnings, however, there are those who fail to take heed.

After the New Year's Day attack, beach-closed signs were put up at Olowalu, but snorkelers and swimmers went in the water anyway and had to be called back to shore by state enforcement officers. In 1999 when eight people died in a rock slide at Sacred Falls, signs posted at the trail head described the valley as subject to slides and flash floods, but those who walked into the area said they either did not read or pay attention to the warnings. Several lawsuits ensued, charging that the state should be held accountable. One suit argued that the signs weren't big or alarming enough.

Although signs may be helpful, they cannot warn of all the potential hazards and thus leave the state vulnerable. For example, if a sign warns of strong currents, but not of high surf, the contention could be made that someone injured by big waves was not adequately informed.

California and other states have adopted laws that limit their liability when natural conditions cause death or injury. Hawaii lawmakers should pass similar legislation to protect against costly and time-consuming legal action and to place the responsibility for risk-taking on the risk-takers.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

Richard Halloran, editorial page director, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, contributing editor 294-3533;

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