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Editorial | Island Voices

State bar’s judicial evaluations are secret to avoid political taint

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The bashing of the Hawaii State Bar Association in the judicial nomination process concerns me. As HSBA president in 2009 (and now no longer privy to the confidential discussions of the HSBA board), we worked to meet our goal to improve the legal profession and promote justice.

All lawyers who practice in Hawaii must be members of HSBA. The state Supreme Court, which traditionally oversees lawyers from admission to the bar until retirement, has passed on a large share of such responsibilities to the HSBA. Thus, it is very important that the HSBA and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who heads the judiciary system, are on good terms and can work together.

There is no other group with a bigger stake in any one of the three branches of government than Hawaii’s lawyers, whose foremost concern is systematic fairness that comes from a well-run judiciary.

The comments of lawyers who have experience with a nominee are most important. The lawyers are in the front lines seeking justice for their clients in the courts. They have first-hand knowledge of whether a judge is fair, unbiased, understands the law and the facts of a case and renders sound decisions.

The confidentiality of a lawyer’s comments is of utmost importance for candid and objective feedback without fear of retribution against the lawyer and his or her future clients.

Some lawyers comment publicly, most often with positive comments. Lawyers with negative experiences prefer the private or confidential forum to the HSBA. Their confidential comments about a nominee are most often thoughtful and thorough, with anecdotes of specific incidents. Each negative comment with any merit is followed up with other individuals for verification and accuracy. This is the reason that the HSBA board met on the day before the scheduled Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing.

The HSBA’s criteria for evaluating a nominee must take into consideration the duties and responsibilities required by the specific office under consideration, whether it is District Court, Circuit Court, Intermediate Court of Appeals, Supreme Court or chief justice.

Having served on the board of the HSBA for years before I became president, I know that the HSBA board’s primary agenda is not political, but focused solely on the quality of the judges.

IN THE confidential HSBA board discussions, the evaluative comments about the nominees and other bar association members are thorough and thoughtful. Most often, the board members give the greatest deference to the many positive qualities of a nominee. The protocol of sharing the good and not so good comments with all the nominees was done confidentially by current HSBA President Hugh Jones.

Finally, the HSBA board must speak with one voice to the public and the state Senate on whether the nominee is qualified or not qualified for the position.

The vote is by secret ballot and the vote count of the board should never be revealed publicly. Otherwise, it will serve only as unhelpful political fodder.


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