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Senators, 14-8, reject Leonard as state's next chief justice

By Star-Advertiser Staff

LAST UPDATED: 5:55 p.m. HST, Aug 6, 2010

The state Senate today rejected Gov. Linda Lingle’s appointment of appeals judge Katherine Leonard as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The 14-8 vote came after nearly three hours of debate in the auditorium of the state Capitol. The vote is a critical blow for Lingle, who called the appointment the most important of her two terms as governor.

Lingle now has 10 days to appoint another nominee from the remaining five names on a list submitted to her by the state Judicial Selection Commission. Among the potential nominees is Associate Justice Mark Recktenwald of the Supreme Court and Chief Judge Craig Nakamura of the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.

“I am disappointed for the people of Hawaii who have been denied by the Senate majority the opportunity to have Judge Leonard as the head of the Supreme Court.  However, I know Judge Leonard will continue to serve with distinction on the Intermediate Court of Appeals,” Lingle said in a statement.

“It’s extremely sad that someone of Judge Leonard’s stature and legal expertise became a victim of bias that had no merit or basis.”
Lingle’s new appointment would also be subject to Senate confirmation. The appointment would fill the seat left vacant by Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who must step down before he turns 70 on Sept. 4 because of the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges.

Leonard, 50, an associate judge on the Intermediate Court of Appeals, received widespread support during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. But the Hawaii State Bar Association rated her “unqualified” and several critics from the legal community questioned her leadership and administrative abilities.

The committee had voted 4-1 on Thursday against recommending Leonard for confirmation, which foreshadowed the broader opposition in the Senate.

Lingle mounted a vigorous campaign to save her nominee. The governor has already appointed two of the five Supreme Court justices, five of six judges on the appeals court and about half of the 33 circuit judges. The appointment of Leonard would have solidified her mark by naming the first female chief justice and the first graduate of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson law school to sit on the high court.

Leonard is the third of Lingle’s judicial nominees rejected by the Senate, following Ted Hong for the Circuit Court in 2004 and Randal Lee for the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2007.

Taniguchi, (D-Manoa, McCully), told senators today that while Leonard has positive qualities, he did not believe she has the ability to lead the Judiciary.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, (R-Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai), drew parallels between Leonard and Elena Kagan, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He said Leonard has more judicial experience than Kagan and suggested she is more qualified for the bench.

Hemmings also noted that all seven women senators voted for a resolution in April urging Lingle to consider gender equality when appointing judges. “You have a chance today to achieve your goals,” he said.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker, (D-W. Maui, S. Maui), said she opposed Leonard with regret and sadness. She said she has advocated for more women on the bench, and believes that Leonard has a good legal mind, but questioned whether she could lead the Judiciary.

All seven women senators voted against confirming Leonard.

Here is the vote breakdown:

No (14): Sen. Rosalyn Baker, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, Sen. Carol Fukunaga, Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, Sen. Clayton Hee, Sen. David Ige, Sen. Les Ihara, Jr., Sen. Michelle Kidani, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, Sen. Dwight Takamine, Sen. Brian Taniguchi, and Sen. Jill Tokuda.

Yes (8): Sen. Will Espero, Sen. Mike Gabbard, Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, Sen. Josh Green, Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, Sen. Norman Sakamoto, Sen. Sam Slom, and Sen. Shan Tsutsui.

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