Gov. Linda Lingle has nominated Intermediate Court of Appeals Associate Judge Katherine Leonard to serve as chief justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court. If approved, she will be the first woman to serve in that role, and will be among 22 women nationwide currently serving as chief justices of state supreme courts.
In selecting Leonard from the list submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission, Lingle cited Leonard’s character, energy, intellect, experience, courage and commitment to the rule of law as the factors she considered in making this nomination.
While gender is not openly mentioned, it nevertheless looms in the background as the Senate considers her nomination.
Assuming the Senate finds agreement with the recommendations and opinions that have led to Leonard’s nomination, Hawaii will be well served if Leonard is appointed to our high court as chief justice. With women comprising only 25 percent of judges serving in Hawaii’s judiciary, it would be a further recognition of the emergence and inspiring contributions of qualified women in our professional and judicial ranks.
Of course, the reality of social, political and judicial progress for women has moved at a slow and sometimes disheartening pace. For example, only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies have female chief executives, a mere 3 percent. Only 17 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. The U.S. House of Representatives has 74 women among its 435 members. The U.S. Supreme Court, assuming Elena Kagen is confirmed, will have women holding three of its nine positions. President Obama’s Cabinet has seven women among a group of 22 members.
In Hawaii, the pace for progress has also been slow. Of the 753 senior executives in Hawaii Business magazine’s Top 250 companies, only one in six are female. One woman and 14 men comprise the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents. The Honolulu City Council has one woman among nine members, and the Honolulu Police Commission has two women among seven members. The state Board of Education leads the percentages with nine women among 13 members, and one woman sits on the state Land Use Commission, which is composed of 9 members. Hawaii has seven women state senators among a field of 25, and 18 of Hawaii’s 51 representatives are women. The governor’s cabinet has seven women out of 17 members, with Hawaii’s congressional delegation showing one of four positions held by a woman.
Interestingly, gender considerations appear to be taking a back seat as we prepare today’s youth for tomorrow’s leadership and livelihood earning capacity. Nevertheless, the topic of gender inequity and gender balance does come up when educators are asked, "How are our female students stacking up with males?"
In the last 20 years we have seen the educational deficit between women and men disappearing. The possibilities for women to pursue their passions and exercise their talent and education are on the rise, with women earning 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Presently, women also earn 49 percent of all doctorate degrees, including medicine, law and academia. Indeed, girls’ performance and participation in math and science subjects in high school have improved over time and in some areas have surpassed that of boys.
Clearly, we must not say that gender alone should be a governing factor in choosing, confirming or electing females to high positions of responsibility.
On the other hand, gender should also no longer be that prohibitive factor that statistics show us has been occurring over the generations.
Indeed, the byproduct of a dearth of women at the highest levels is the loss of a very fertile pool of ideas, talent and experience that enhances corporate boards, political and judicial circles and scientific fields.
We should expect that the rigorous application process for chief justice of Hawaii, together with the careful and independent Judicial Selection Commission’s review and recom- mendations, and Lingle’s considered process for presenting Leonard’s nomination to the Senate for its advice and consent, will culminate in the confirmation of Hawaii’s first female chief justice, thereby tapping into that fertile pool of female talent and quality for Hawaii.