State chief negotiator Ted Hong stands at his desk in the Office of Collective Bargaining in the state office tower. Hong has been nominated as a Hilo circuit judge.

Judgeship may rein in
nominee’s frankness

Ted Hong is known for his
outspokenness as an
interim UH regent

Should he be confirmed as a judge, Ted Hong may be forced to do something his critics have tried and failed to get him to do -- shut up.

Ted H.S. Hong

Age: 46
Personal: Married with two children, ages 8 and 5.
Current positions: state chief negotiator and interim University of Hawaii regent.
Previous jobs: Attorney in private practice specializing in labor issues; assistant and acting corporation counsel for County of Hawaii; deputy corporation counsel and deputy prosecuting attorney for City and County of Honolulu; pineapple picker.
Education: University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, UH-Manoa, Leilehua High School.

The nomination of the outspoken interim University of Hawaii regent and the state's chief negotiator to the 3rd Circuit Court in Hilo is expected to be controversial -- in large part because of Hong's tendency to speak out on issues like UH-West Oahu, conflicts of interest among fellow regents and confrontations with UH President Evan Dobelle.

"I believe Mr. Hong's nomination is going to be a divisive and controversial one," said Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa, who said she is undecided about Hong. "A lot of that is attributed to the fact that there are people who have very strong feelings on both sides."

She added, "Mr. Hong appears to have stepped on some toes."

Hong acknowledged that his confirmation would be much easier if he had avoided taking stands as a regent and been less zealous as an attorney. But he makes no apologies.

"I am not afraid of conflict," Hong said in an interview before he was nominated to the bench by Gov. Linda Lingle. "Out of any situation involving conflict, it is the first big step toward a resolution."

If he is confirmed as a judge, however, Hong said he recognizes that he will have to keep his opinions to himself.

"As a judge, you're on the different end of the spectrum as part of a conflict. Now you become the person who presides over the conflicting points of view," Hong said in a later interview.

"I have the luxury now, the privilege now of speaking my mind, speaking openly, speaking candidly about taking particular issues, taking sides on particular issues. ... As a judge, I do not have that luxury," he added.

The Senate must confirm or reject his nomination, and a hearing is scheduled before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The two Democratic senators who represent East Hawaii are divided about whether he should get the job.

Senator and former Big Island Mayor Lorraine Inouye opposes Hong's nomination. Sen. Russell Kokubun supports him.

"He's so outspoken. I really feel for all those who have to go before him in court," said Inouye, who said she thinks Hong lacks the "judicial temperament" to be a fair and impartial judge and that he lacks experience as a judge.

Inouye also said the nomination is political, that Lingle is rewarding Hong with a judgeship because he campaigned for her and served in her Cabinet.

"She took care of him," Inouye said.

But Kokubun, who worked with Hong in the administration of former Big Island Mayor Stephen Yamashiro, said he knows Hong will make a good judge.

"Ted is not a soft-spoken kind of guy," Kokubun said. "He's very outspoken and I think some people can be offended by that, but I think you have to look beyond that kind of trait."

Senators say Hong is generating feedback from constituents, much more so than Lingle's four other nominations to the bench.

"I think it's primarily because of his strong assertiveness as an attorney," Kokubun said. "People are going to form opinions, and it depends on whether you are being defended by or opposing him."

Inouye also objects to Hong's decisions as a deputy and acting corporation counsel under Yamashiro, including a case in which he represented the county in an effort to fire two of Inouye's supporters from civil-service jobs after she left office.

The Protect Keopuka Ohana, which fought to stop the Hokulia development in West Hawaii, has also come out against Hong's nomination, because of controversial legal decisions, including the approval of the Hokulia project.

Hanabusa said public worker unions, which deal with Hong in his role as the state's chief negotiator, are divided on his nomination.

Hong said people have to realize that as an attorney, he is representing his client.

"I don't get to pick the cases. I don't get to pick the causes. That's not my role," Hong said. "My role is to make sure my client's position is advanced."

As a judge, Hong said, he understands he needs to be fair and impartial and will bring to the bench the same passion he puts into being an advocate.

As for political favoritism, Hong noted that Lingle nominates only one member of the Judicial Selection Commission, which submitted his name as a candidate. He said he went through the same interview process in the governor's office as the five other candidates for the job.

"They asked me the same questions as everybody else, that's what they tell me. That was a full-scale interview; that wasn't drink coffee, 'How you doing, Ted? How are things going?'

"My joke to some of my friends is I think 'American Idol' was easier," he said.

At the press conference last month announcing Hong's nomination, Lingle said she selected her chief negotiator because of his "strong work ethic, his sense of fairness and respect, and his integrity."

Also present at the news conference was Hong's father, Tany Hong, former attorney general under Gov. George Ariyoshi and District Court judge.

"It's nice to have your kids follow in your footsteps," Tany Hong said afterward. "I think he has the temperament."

He said about his son: "He's outspoken and ethical. From the bench, if it's right, you're going to call it right; if it's wrong, he'll call it wrong."

As a kid growing up in a politically active family in Wahiawa, Hong said his goal in life wasn't to become a judge, but to become governor.

"In meeting with some of the senators (during the confirmation process), I admire what they do," he said. "I'm almost envious of what they do, the issues that they can confront and talking to them about how they are looking at issues and pursuing certain issues."

Hong remembers campaigning for Democratic governors John Burns and George Ariyoshi while growing up, and despite campaigning for Republican Gov. Lingle and serving in her Cabinet, he said he remains an independent Democrat.

Hong said he doesn't have any plans to run for office, but doesn't rule it out in the future. If he becomes a judge, he said he would not be involved in politics during his 10-year term.

Friends say a major influence in Hong's life was his first job as a lawyer, as a deputy prosecutor under the combative Prosecutor Charles Marsland.

"I think Ted's willingness to stand up and state what he truly believes ... was forged working at the prosecutor's office," said Rodney Veary, who worked with Hong under Marsland and at the Honolulu Department of Corporation Counsel.

Hong said he will be "disappointed" if he is not confirmed.

"Is this something I want?" he said. "I wouldn't put myself and my family through this if I didn't."

But he said government should be open, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable for others and for himself.

"We need to make sure government is transparent, and we need to do it openly and honestly, otherwise how can good decisions be made? And that's my whole philosophy of how things should be done," he said.

"Now, doing things like that doesn't necessarily make you Mr. Nice Guy and loved by everyone."

He said in an interview late last year: "God gave you a neck. You've got to stick it out every once in a while."


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