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Lingle stumbles in effort to remake state Judiciary

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Friday, Gov. Linda Lingle watched from the audience as the state Senate voted 14 to 8 against Katherine Leonard’s confirmation.

Lingle’s sponsorship of Katherine Leonard as chief justice of the state Supreme Court was not a whim; it was part of a deliberate plan to remake the high court.

It was nearly eight years ago that Lingle started to target the court.

In 2003, she called it "dysfunctional," and let it be known she wanted changes on the court, which she felt was too much in the business of making new laws instead of interpreting the state Constitution.

Lingle’s antipathy for the court was egged on by her policy adviser at the time, University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth, and her attorney general, Mark Bennett, both of whom had written critical commentaries about the court.

It was solidified when the court ruled against her administration in the Hawaii Superferry case, a decision that she condemns as a misjudgment.

"Kate would shake it up, for good or bad," said one source and former member of the state judiciary.

"She is very much like Linda Lingle, she is a bulldog," he said.

Bulldog or not, it appears Lingle was forced to turn to Leonard when Mark Recktenwald fell out of favor with the governor and Bennett.

Recktenwald, now an associate justice of the Supreme Court, had been chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals. He was Lingle’s go-to guy when he ran the state Commerce and Consumer Affairs Department and was widely hailed as both a team player and a savvy organizer.

However, once on the Supreme Court, sources say, Lingle and Bennett started to have doubts about Recktenwald.

As the Star-Advertiser’s Ken Kobayashi noted, Recktenwald invoked the state Constitution in a ruling last month that changed the way courts deal with competing interests of environmentalists and developers.

Environmental lawyers say it makes clear that private parties can pursue lawsuits under the constitutional provision that says "each person has a right to a clean and healthful environment," Kobayashi reported.

"That ruling was icing on the cake against Recktenwald," according to several other legal sources, who said it echoed the court’s Superferry ruling.

Sources said Lingle was furious that Recktenwald was not fighting for her position on the court and turned out to be a centrist, not an advocate for less judicial interpretation.

Besides being the point of Lingle’s court-reforming spear, Leonard would have been one of the most powerful state Supreme Court chief justices in the country.

The CJ assigns judges to court, decides whether they are going to civil or criminal court, works on the court calendar, appoints District Court judges from a list drawn up by the Judicial Selection Commission and decides who will write the majority opinions.

Now, just as she said Leonard’s appointment was part of her legacy, the defeat marks the governor’s inability to shape the court as part of the Lingle record.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at


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