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Leonard's ability to lead is doubted

By Ken Kobayashi

LAST UPDATED: 11:03 a.m. HST, Aug 4, 2010

After several hours of hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman expressed concerns yesterday about whether appeals Judge Katherine Leonard possesses the leadership skills to be Hawaii's next chief justice.

Leonard told the committee that "perhaps in somewhat quieter and different ways," she has demonstrated the leadership and administrative skills for the job.

But Sen. Brian Taniguchi, committee chairman, said he is concerned about what former Hawaii State Bar Association President Paul Alston called the most important criteria for the job: the ability to lead, to inspire judges and to protect the independence and integrity of the Judiciary at all costs.

"I'm not clear she can lead the Judiciary," Taniguchi said.

Taniguchi (D, Moiliili-Manoa) said he has not yet decided how he will vote when the committee meets tomorrow on whether to recommend approving her appointment to the full Senate. The chairman said he has not polled the other four committee members, but thinks Sen. Sam Slom (Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai), the only Republican on the panel, will support Leonard.

He added that part of his concerns is that Gov. Linda Lingle picked Leonard over several others on the list submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission who had more judicial experience, such as Associate Justice Mark Recktenwald Chief Judge Craig Nakamura of the Intermediate Court of Appeals and Dan Foley, Leonard's fellow appeals judge who has been on the court a longer period of time.

Leonard, 50, would replace Chief Justice Ronald Moon and serve a 10-year term, which could be renewed by the Judicial Selection Commission. Moon must retire before he turns 70 on Sept. 4 because of the state mandatory retirement law for judges.

Leonard provided the committee members with her personal background of growing up in a small Wisconsin town with working-class parents, moving to Hawaii at the age of 22 because of her interest in orchids, getting a job at a Waimanalo nursery, working as a research associate at a pharmacological school and enrolling at the University of Hawaii's William S. Richardson law school, where she became editor-in-chief of the law review.

She was Robert Klein's first law clerk when he became an associate justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court and spent her legal career at the prestigious Carlsmith Ball law firm handling civil cases, including writing the termination plan for the $2.5 billion Campbell Estate.

She became an appeals judge in January 2008, which she said was "a dream come true."

"I have no agenda, no platform," she told the committee, saying she approaches each case by analyzing facts and the law without bias.

She expressed pride that one can read her opinion rejecting Stop Rail Now's request to get on the 2008 general election ballot. "You will never know what I thought of rail transit in Hawaii," she said. "It's not relevant, and you can't tell by reading my case."

When Taniguchi asked her whom she would have picked as chief justice if she were governor, Leonard replied, "Well, I like the pick."

Among the more than 100 people who submitted testimony in support of her appointment were Klein; his senior partner William McCorriston; Carlsmith Ball current and former lawyers; former bar association presidents; retired judges, including Elizabeth Eden Hifo and Corinne Watanabe; Attorney General Mark Bennett; state Public Defender Jack Tonaki; Leonard's former law clerks; and University of Hawaii law school Dean Avi Soifer and several law school professors.

They praised her as an intelligent, hard-working lawyer and judge with sharp legal skills who treats people with courtesy and respect and who possesses the leadership and administrative ability to run the third branch of government.

Bennett and several speakers, including former bar association presidents, denounced the bar association for its confidential process that resulted in the board of directors finding Leonard "unqualified" without disclosing the reasons. Lingle also issued a statement Monday evening saying the recommendation was "outrageous" and should be ignored.

Leonard told the committee that when she was interviewed by the state bar association, she was asked about her administrative skills and background but not about her cases.

"I think they listened, although it was hard to tell how open they were or how far along they were in their thinking," she said.

Hugh Jones, a deputy attorney general speaking as the bar association president, said the process has been known to be confidential for years for the same reason the Judicial Selection Commission has confidential proceedings in screening candidates for the bench.

It is to provide protection for people from reprisals when they comment on sitting judges or other lawyers who might become judges, he said.

Jones said many questions were asked when Leonard appeared before the board for two hours Monday, and he said he had "substantial discussions" with her about the concerns by bar members.

In addition to Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, who was the first lawyer to publicly oppose the appointment last week, former Circuit Judge Marie Milks and Honolulu lawyer Elizabeth Jubin Fujiwara told the committee Leonard did not have the record of leadership or administrative ability for the job.

Taniguchi later said he understands the bar association's process and that he himself asked the association in the past to be more open.

But he said the vote by a majority of the board means there are "very serious concerns" probably along the lines of the opposition testimony—that Leonard might be a good associate justice on the high court, but not the chief justice.

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