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VOLCANIC ASH


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Secretive judicial selections hinder trust in Abercrombie

By David Shapiro

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:54 a.m. HST, Mar 30, 2011



When I searched online for information about Joseph L. Wildman, appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to be a Circuit Court judge on Maui, the first interesting items that popped up were that he came from the law firm of Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, the House Judiciary chairman, and contributed $1,610 to Abercrombie's campaign for governor.

I asked in my blog, "Does anybody detect the scent of politics?"

It drew an indignant comment from an Abercrombie associate who wrote, "It isn't ‚Āòpolitics,' it's friendship. They have known each other for years. Joe was on Neil's staff at the Legislature."

While I appreciated the candor from someone I respect, somehow it didn't comfort me to learn that the appointment might represent cronyism more than politics.

Confidence might have been restored if I could have looked at the list of candidates that the Judicial Selection Commission gave Abercrombie to choose from to see how Wildman's legal credentials stacked up against the others who did not happen to be the governor's personal friends.

But that's no longer possible, of course, because Abercrombie abandoned his predecessor's practice of releasing the candidate lists and seeking public comment before appointing judges who will wield immense power over our lives for 10, 20 or 30 years.

The governor claims his wall of secrecy will produce better candidates, but with the candidates kept hidden we'll never know, will we?

We can't see whether the selection panel is giving the governor a diverse field of quality candidates to pick from. There's no telling whether the governor is giving all qualified attorneys a fair shot or limiting his choices to personal pals and political allies.

Trust is difficult to muster when Abercrombie curtly dismisses both the legitimate public interest of an open and honest judicial selection process and the value of public engagement in the vetting of judges.

Former Chief Justice Ronald Moon released the candidate list and sought public comment before appointing District Court judges as does current Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and said it provided valuable insights on candidates that he couldn't have gotten by other means.

But Abercrombie said he has no use for public input. "The public doesn't pick the judge," he said. "I do."

The state Supreme Court, the Hawaii chapter of American Judicature Society and the state Office of Information Practices have all said there is no merit in the notion that secrecy produces better judges, and argued for transparency.

The governor's claim of a proprietary right to pick judges out of public view has a ring of arrogance. He has nobody but himself to blame when it breeds suspicion that his motive is not better candidates, but cover from which to hand out judgeships to personal and political friends.

David Shapiro can be reached at volcanicash@gmail.com or blog.volcanicash.net.






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