The state Senate will be closely reviewing Gov. Linda Lingle’s appointment of appeals Judge Katherine Leonard to a 10-year term as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, said Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.
Hanabusa noted that this will be the only chance senators and the public will have to comment on Leonard’s appointment should she be approved because the Judicial Selection Commission in its confidential proceedings would decide whether she would serve a succeeding 10-year term.
Leonard, 50, would replace Ronald Moon, who served as chief justice for 17 years, but must step down by Sept. 24 when he turns 70 because of the state’s mandatory retirement law.
Hanabusa said senators will await a recommendation from the Hawaii State Bar Association as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on the appointment before the Senate deadline of Aug. 23. If the Senate does not act by then, the appointment is deemed confirmed.
Hanabusa said she has not made up her mind, but "I have not heard anything yet that would lead me to be against confirmation."
Hanabusa joined many in the legal community who were surprised by Lingle’s announcement.
By selecting Leonard, a judge on the Intermediate Court of Appeals for two years, Lingle bucked the conventional wisdom among lawyers by choosing a relative judicial newcomer to head the state’s third branch of government.
Leonard doesn’t have judicial administrative experience and wasn’t believed to be as close to the governor as Associate Justice Mark Recktenwald, whom many believed would be tabbed.
But in her announcement Thursday, Lingle focused on what she called Leonard’s "great character and strong intellect," her writing skills and "a true commitment to the rule of law."
She noted that she would be appointing Hawaii’s first female chief justice, but said she wasn’t picking her because she was a woman.
Leonard, who would be the fifth chief justice since statehood, also would be the state’s first born on the mainland (Fond du Lac, Wis.) and the state’s first Caucasian to head the judiciary.
But Lingle said another "important" first is that Leonard would be the first graduate of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law to sit on the high court. Richardson, the state’s second chief justice who died last month, was known for backing the creation of the law school and his jurisprudence that sought to incorporate ancient Hawaiian law into modern-day Hawaii.
Lingle was required to pick the chief justice from a list of six candidates sent by the Judicial Selection Commission. Recktenwald was among the others, all men.
Jeff Portnoy, former Hawaii State Bar Association president and lawyer for media clients, including the Star-Advertiser, said many in the legal community thought that it was so certain that Lingle would name Recktenwald that the commission appeared to have a difficult time finding the required four to six qualified candidates to the governor.
That led to the commission extending the deadline for applications several times, he said.
"People thought, ‘Why apply?’" Portnoy said.
Hanabusa said she thinks the bar association probably will find Leonard qualified.
But she said one of the key issues for the senators might be whether Leonard has the administrative experience to head the state Judiciary, which has about 1,800 employees and a budget of more than $130 million. But Hanabusa said the experience is just one of several criteria in evaluating the appointment, and she will await the hearings before deciding.
During the announcement of her appointment Thursday at the governor’s office, Leonard said she will be ready.
"I understand and respect the Senate’s role in the judicial selection process," she said. "I look forward to meeting with the senators and answering their questions."