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Judicial posts lure fewer applicants

The state panel that lists potential judges identifies those who vied for the bench

By Ken Kobayashi


The number of applicants for higher-level state judgeships has been decreasing over the years, according to data released Tuesday by state Judicial Selection Commission members who want to see more applications for future vacancies.

One glaring example: 24 people applied for a vacancy on the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2003, but only seven applied for a high court vacancy last year and only nine for a vacancy this year.

“My concern is it’s a shrinking pool, and you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to figure out a shrinking pool is not good for any job,” said commission member Jeffrey Portnoy.

Commission Chairwoman Susan Ichi­nose cautioned that the commission is not criticizing any of the current judges.

“The point is we want to do the best job possible for the people of the state of Hawaii,” she said. “That means we want to attract a lot more people.”

The release of the data was a result of the commission amending its rules last year to lift some of its confidentiality restrictions.

The changes included releasing the names of the commission’s finalists for judicial positions when the panel submits its lists to the governor and chief justice.

Under the state Constitution, the governor must fill vacancies on the Hawaii Supreme Court, the state appeals court and the circuit courts from lists of names submitted by the commission.

The chief justice picks district court judges from the commission’s lists.

All appointments are subject to state Senate confirmation.

The lists of finalists have been made public in the past, but the nine-member commission released Tuesday the total number of applicants and their genders for judicial appointments for the past 10 years — information that previously was confidential.

The commissioners themselves just received the data and did not have a chance to thoroughly review them for trends.

But it appears that the applications for higher judicial positions have decreased.

For the high court, 24 — 18 men and six women — applied for the vacancy that was filled by former Associate Justice James Duffy in 2003.

Only 10 (eight men and two women) applied in 2009 for another high court vacancy, seven (six men and one woman) applied for a high court vacancy last year and nine (six men and three women) applied for a vacancy this year.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle named Mark Recktenwald to fill the 2009 vacancy. Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed to the high court Sabrina McKenna — the only female applicant — last year and Richard Pollack this year.

For the 2010 chief justice vacancy, 12 people (nine men and three women) applied for the position now held by Recktenwald.

The commission must submit four to six names for vacancies on the high court, which resulted in a majority of the applicants making the finalist lists for the last two high court openings.

Portnoy said his view is that the number of private attorneys applying for the vacancies has been decreasing.

The commissioners said there may be a range of reasons for the decline.

They include judicial salaries, the application process, the Senate confirmation hearings, the disclosure of the finalists’ names, the constraints on judges’ lifestyles and the political inclinations of the appointing authority.

But some members agreed the major reason is the judicial pay in Hawaii, which was ranked lowest among the nation’s state courts in 2010.

“I would put it on the top of the list,” commission member James Bickerton said.

In an attempt to attract more candidates, the commission for the first time has been conducting informal meetings with lawyers throughout the state.

The aim is to inform lawyers about the commission and its operations, and persuade them to apply for judicial positions.

The last session was Tuesday at the Hawaii Supreme Court conference room, just prior to the release of the data.

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Manoa_Fisherman wrote:
Anyone with an ounce of intergrity or values their professional reputation would not want to be subjected to poltical zoo (or circus) that is involved in the judicial selection process. After the legal profession gets through running down a candidate that doesn't have the political pull with the big firms or big backers, the wannabe judge has to face the degrading process of trying to please the Governor or Chief Justice in order to be selected. After two rounds of people looking up your backside and career, you then have the opportunity to face the Senate confirmation process. Here, you face the Mad Hatter chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, State Senator Clayton Hee who is well known to have some unusual quirks and a blistering temper. Actually, if given a choice of being a judge in Hawaii or a longshoreman, I would chose to be a longshoreman, it pays better and there are a lot less professional headaches to bring home with you.
on October 31,2012 | 03:59AM
bender wrote:
I suppose Abercrombie will use this as ammo to starting hiding the list of candidates again.
on October 31,2012 | 05:56AM
copperwire9 wrote:
Personally, I think the list *should* be confidential, even though I'm no particular fan of Neil.
on October 31,2012 | 09:54AM
Descartes22 wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on October 31,2012 | 07:23AM
earlson wrote:
It's not necessarily the pay but the selection process itself. Rightly or wrongly, the commission appears to emphasize "public service" as one criteria in determining whether the applicant qualified to be a judge. If you have not worked for the government or non-profit or performed a lot of volunteer work, you are unlikely to convince the commission that you have an interest and commitment to public service. Basically, it's not enough that you are intelligent, willing to work hard and desire to be a judge. With the emphasis on experience handling criminal cases, you tend to get a number of government attorneys applying and not many who have purely been in a civil private practice. As a result of all of these factors, not many private practice attorneys are interested in applying. The public needs to examine the quality of the judges appointed over the past few years to determine whether the selection process and criteria need to be changed in order to encourage more people to apply.
on October 31,2012 | 08:14AM
CriticalReader wrote:
This is about the Senate confirmation process. It is completely political and there are no real boundaries. Who was the woman who got rejected last time for the head job? Brutality. That's the only way to describe what happened to her. Who wants to RISK going through that?
on October 31,2012 | 10:04AM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
As my mentor, who attended Harvard Law at the time the stereotypical law professor in "The Paper Chase" taught there was fond of quoting what that professor would say, "Continue to speak Mr. CriticalReader, you couldn't be wronger." "The woman" you refer to is Kate Leonard, and in an unpublished decision she jointly issued as an intermediate court of appeals judge titled "Williams v. Aona," she was so ignorant of the most basic elements of law that she held that Federal Law applied to the case when State of Hawaii Law NOT Federal Law applied. The mistake was so horrendous that the Hawaii Supreme Court had to, sua sponte (on its own accord without being asked to by one of the parties), correct that error. Imagine the kinds of injustices that would occur if someone so ignorant of the law that she could not tell if State or Federal Law applied, got "the head job" (Chief Justice) ? Descartes22 is absolutely correct -- the pay is too low, that's why only the mediocre apply to be judges, especially appellate judges. Furthermore, the "political correctness" criteria, where in Leonard's case, was being a UH School of Law grad, and a later in life lawyer because earlier in life she was mommy instead of going straight through from college to law school, as most competent lawyers do, counts more than competence, makes for lazy, lousy appellate judges. It is only fitting that the UH Law School is named for one of the few, if not the only, State Supreme Court Chief Justice in the 20th Century who never passed the bar exam (lawyer qualification test).
on October 31,2012 | 05:36PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
Don't get wrong, I'm not totally down on the UH; it has a great Med School and solid undergraduate program. I'm a UH undergrad and I received an excellent basic college education where any kid from even the most humble of backgrounds (I came from a one wage earner, stay at home mom, blue collar household) could afford to go to and graduate from college, and receive a fine education at that. However, UH's Law School is too political, both from the politician's standpoint and "political correctness" standpoint to ever give its students even a basic legal education. UH Law will always be that way unless there are major changes made to it.
on October 31,2012 | 05:50PM
loquaciousone wrote:
This has nothing to do with releasing the names. There were 24 applicants when Lingle was Governor and she regularly released the names. This is all about money. A Hawaii State Supreme Court Judge makes about $160,000 to 170,000 a year. Why would anyone give up a million dollar practice for that kind of money?
on October 31,2012 | 01:22PM
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