POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 5, 2010
For reasons not given, the Hawaii Bar Association is jeopardizing the state Senate's confirmation of appeals Judge Katherine Leonard as Hawaii's chief justice by alleging that she is unqualified. The Judicial Selection Commission already had found Leonard qualified to lead the state Supreme Court, and senators have no palpable evidence to decide otherwise. Her nomination should be confirmed.
Leonard was a lawyer in the prestigious Honolulu law firm of Carlsmith Ball since 1992 and a partner in the firm since 1997 before being named to the state's Intermediate Court of Appeals in January 2008. If she is confirmed to replace Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who must retire when he turns 70 years old next month, she would be Hawaii's first woman chief justice.
Gov. Linda Lingle selected Leonard for the 10-year term from six lawyers who were found by the Judicial Selection Commission to be qualified for the post. On the eve of Tuesday's hearing on the nomination by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Bar Association announced its opposition to Leonard.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi, the committee's chairman, said after the hearing that he was concerned that Lingle chose Leonard over several others on the list. But that is the governor's prerogative. For senators to use the confirmation process to make another choice from the list of those deemed qualified by the commission would be wildly improper.
The Bar Association has refused to give its reason for disagreeing with the commission's evaluation of Leonard except to say that its 20-member board of directors has a list of national guidelines for judicial qualifications. Hugh Jones, president of the lawyers club, said the votes on ratings of candidates are secret, as are the reasons -- unlike the openness in evaluation of nominees for the federal bench.
Lawyer Eric Seitz has contended for the past week that Leonard lacks administrative experience to head the Judiciary. That accusation soon was dropped after it was pointed out that none of the past chief justices had prior administrative duties. The opposition then turned to the allegation that Leonard is somehow short on leadership qualities, which are difficult to evaluate.
"A leader must have the ability to instill confidence in those who are unwilling to take risks," retired Circuit Judge Marie N. Milks testified to the committee in opposition to Leonard's confirmation. "A leader should not be a divisive personality. A leader must have respect for all, especially for those in subordinate position."
Many lawyers, including four other retired women Circuit Court judges and six former Hawaii Bar Association presidents, testified strongly that Leonard satisfies leadership characteristics and all other desirable attributes of a chief justice. She takes pride in her moderation and is not an ideologue. Indeed, after reviewing her record on the Intermediate Court, acting city Prosecutor Douglas S. Chin evaluated her as "impartial and thoughtful" while state Public Defender John M. Tonaki called her "scholarly and fair."
Objectivity should be regarded as the most important asset of a chief justice, and that appears to be a trait of Leonard. Senators would do her an injustice by making choices of their own among the half-dozen designated by the Selection Commission as qualified for the job.