POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2011
The Hawaii State Bar Association has changed its ways in deciding to recognize the public's need to know the reasons for finding judicial nominees "qualified" or "unqualified," but Gov. Neil Abercrombie has taken a step backward in concealing the names of candidates submitted to him. The entire process should be open to the public.
This week, Abercrombie chose Sabrina Shizue McKenna, a state judge in district and circuit court for 17 years, for a 10-year term to the Supreme Court.
He called the judicial nomination, his first as governor, "the most important decision" in his career. So far, he's right.
Certainly, it's a decision that's important to Hawaii's people, who deserve to know more about how he made his choice. But that's not possible without knowing who was included in the candidate list provided to him by the Judicial Selection Commission, which operates in secret as required by the state Constitution.
Abercrombie had to go back to the administrations of Govs. John Waihee and George Ariyoshi to find similar concealment once the nominees are provided in the judicial selection process.
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano released the names of candidates after announcing his choice, and Gov. Linda Lingle opened the curtain entirely, releasing the names and seeking public comment before making her selections.
Donalyn Dela Cruz, Abercrombie's spokeswoman, said the governor wants to "ensure the confidentiality of these applicants" and "believes getting the names out is detrimental to attracting prospective judicial applicants."
Former Chief Justice Ronald Moon obviously does not share that concern. Before appointing state district judges, Moon made public the lists provided by the Selection Commission and sought public comments before making his choices.
Present Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald plans to continue that policy of openness, according to a Judiciary spokesman.
The bar association drew deserved criticism last year when it refused to divulge the reasons why it gave a grade of "unqualified" to Katherine Leonard, Lingle's first choice for chief justice. The state Senate rejected Leonard's nomination and then confirmed Recktenwald's subsequent nomination for the post.
McKenna, now senior judge of Oahu's Family Court at the Kapolei courthouse, has solid credentials on paper and is likely to gain the stamps of approval of both the bar association and the Senate. Other candidates on the list can take pride in being among the few considered for the high court.
Unlike in some other states, Hawaii residents can't vote for their judges. Surely, in the interests of representative government, they should be allowed to offer the governor some suggestions.