Gov. Linda Lingle’s choice of Katherine Leonard over Mark Recktenwald as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court was a surprise to most in the legal community, but it shouldn’t have been.
If she clears Senate confirmation to become Hawaii’s first female top judge, Leonard will be more memorable to Lingle’s legacy, and skipping over Recktenwald avoided a political arithmetic problem for the governor.
Recktenwald seemed to be the one Lingle was grooming for the position when current Chief Justice Ronald Moon reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 in September.
A former federal prosecutor and an original member of Lingle’s Cabinet, she named him chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2007 and an associate justice of the Supreme Court in 2009.
Recktenwald was considered such a shoo-in that the Judicial Selection Commission had to extend the deadline to get enough qualified applicants. But in the end the Republican governor’s political math would have argued against elevating him.
It would have meant having to replace Recktenwald as associate justice, and with Lingle’s term coming to an end in December, Democrats likely could have strung out the process to leave that appointment to the next governor in the hope it would be a Democrat.
The result: no net gain in the number of Supreme Court justices she’s appointed, and this is a very important number to Lingle.
After eight years of getting nowhere with the Democratic Legislature on her policy initiatives, the Judiciary is Lingle’s only clear legacy. By the time she leaves, Lingle will have appointed three of the five Supreme Court justices, five of six judges on the Intermediate Court of Appeals and more than half of the Circuit Court judges.
Lingle appointed Leonard to the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2008, and it must have been sweet as Hawaii’s first female governor to appoint the first female chief justice — especially after taking criticism in the Legislature for not appointing enough female judges.
Even with Lingle appointing three of the five Supreme Court justices, it’s still arguably a Democratic majority.
Her first appointee, James E. Duffy Jr. in 2003, had previously been backed by Hawaii Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but his nomination by President Bill Clinton washed out in the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations.
When the next state Supreme Court opening occurred, the Judicial Selection Commission sent Lingle a list to pick from in which only Duffy had the experience and stature to be a credible choice.
He’s sided with the court majority in smacking down the Lingle administration on the Hawaii Superferry, ceded lands and University of Hawaii regent appointments.