Gov. Linda Lingle appointed appeals Judge Katherine Leonard yesterday to become the state’s fifth chief justice and the first woman to serve as head of the Hawaii Judiciary.
Calling the decision her most important appointment, Hawaii’s first female governor said she was mindful of the historic first of naming Hawaii’s first female chief justice.
But she said key reason for her selection was Leonard’s "intellectual ability, her record and respect for the rule of law."
Lingle also said she picked Leonard "because of the outstanding chief justice I believe she will become."
The governor noted another first: Leonard would be the first graduate of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law to serve on the five-member Supreme Court.
Leonard, 50, called the appointment to a 10-year term "an unbelievable honor."
Lingle’s selection clearly solidifies her legacy on the state’s third branch of government after she leaves office in December after two four-year terms.
If confirmed by the Senate, Leonard would succeed Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who must step down before Sept. 4, when he turns 70, the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges. As chief justice, Moon serves as the head of the state Judiciary, which has about 1,800 employees and an annual budget of more than $130 million.
Some Senate sources complained privately when Lingle appointed Leonard to the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2007 that the civil attorney lacked judicial and criminal law experience. But she did not face tough questioning during the Senate committee hearings, and the Senate unanimously approved her appointment 23-0.
Katherine Grace Leonard
» Born: Aug. 29, 1959, Fond du Lac, Wis.
» Education: University of Wisconsin-Parkside, 1982 graduate; University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law (law review editor in chief), 1991 graduate
» Clerkships: Former Associate Justice Robert Klein; Oahu Circuit Court
» Private practice: Partner, law office of Carlsmith Ball LLP, 1992-2007
» Judicial experience: Judge, Intermediate Court of Appeals, 2008-present
» Family: Married to Ian Sandison; one son and two stepchildren
» Personal interests: Active in Scouting, American Youth Soccer Association coach, Honolulu Orchid Society volunteer
Richard Rapoza, Senate communications director, said the Senate traditionally holds a vote toward the end of the 30-day period it has to act on the appointment. That would mean the vote would be around Aug. 20, with the Senate Judiciary Committee holding hearings on the appointment earlier in the month.
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Taniguchi could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Rapoza said the senators will give the appointment "a very thorough review."
"They take this job very seriously," he said.
Lingle chose Leonard from a list of six candidates sent to her June 23 by the Judicial Selection Commission and had until today to make the appointment, or it would have been forfeited to the commission. She said she thought about the decision "very deeply" over the past month.
The five other candidates, all men, included Mark Recktenwald, Lingle’s former Cabinet member as director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and her appointee as chief judge of the appeals court and then as an associate justice on the Supreme Court.
"I guess I was surprised," said state Public Defender Jack Tonaki, one of many in the legal community who thought Recktenwald would be Lingle’s pick.
But he said Leonard’s selection is a "good choice."
"I think as one of the final major acts of this governor, I think it shows a lot," he said. "It’s a real accomplishment for the advancement of women in this state."
Lingle declined to explain why she picked Leonard over Recktenwald, saying she does not talk during appointment announcements about why she did not name a person, but would rather focus on her selection. She said she and Recktenwald are "good friends" and noted he will remain on the high court.
"I expect this will be a outstanding court going forward," she said.
Leonard shied away from discussing her thoughts about being the first female chief justice, but when pressed said, "It’s a great honor to be the first chief justice who is a woman in this state, and I’m just very pleased."
Lingle has said in the past she prefers judges who follow the law rather than legislate from the bench. Asked how she would carry out that philosophy, Leonard said she has "great respect for the rule of law."
"To me that means upholding the United States Constitution, the Hawaii Constitution, following the laws that have been enacted by the Legislature, the rules of the court and putting aside any of my personal feelings or opinions," she said.
She described herself as a "modest and moderate judge and someone who follows the rule of law."
Leonard, who served two years on the state appeals court, said she helped decide the merits of more than 400 appeals.
"That’s the No. 1 experience that will help me in this job," she said.
She said she could not pick any of her opinions as particularly important because "every single case is important to the people in that case and who are affected by it."
"I try to approach every single case the same way and give each case a fair and full hearing and analysis, so it’s just hard for me to say one is more poignant or important than another."
Lingle said Leonard wrote about 150 opinions, demonstrating her intellectual abilities, which were also reflected by her service as editor of UH’s law review.
In selecting Leonard, Lingle said the chief justice sets "the tone of jurisprudence in this state."
"It is crucial that the jurisprudence of our Supreme Court reflects the rule of law and reflects a fundamental principle inherent in our democracy — that is, we rely on three co-equal branches of government," she said.
The governor already has named two of the five justices on the Hawaii Supreme Court, five of the six judges on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals and 14 of the 33 circuit judges.
Three more of her circuit judge appointees are awaiting Senate confirmation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the three appointments on Aug. 2 and four appointments by Chief Justice Moon to the district court bench on Aug. 3. Senate votes on those appointments are scheduled for Aug. 5 and 6, according to Rapoza.