Unlike Gov. Linda Lingle’s first choice to be Hawaii’s chief justice, Associate Supreme Court Justice Mark Recktenwald is receiving broad and deserved support to elevate to the top job of the high court. The state Senate should confirm his nomination for the 10-year term as the state’s fifth chief justice.
Recktenwald, whom Lingle chose for chief justice of the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2007 and associate justice last year, had been expected to be her first choice for the Supreme Court’s leading justice. His authorship of a ruling that gave a homeowners association a "private right" to block a charter school’s placement on Big Island agricultural land appeared to have miffed the governor and attorney general.
The ruling may have led Lingle to turn to Intermediate Court Judge Katherine Leonard to be chief justice, but Leonard was rejected by legislators after the Hawaii State Bar Association deemed her unqualified for reasons not made public.
Lingle can be comfortable with Recktenwald, a Republican and former member of her Cabinet. She has described him as a "good friend" whom she knows "better than I have known any of the judges I have appointed." He was director of Lingle’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs from 2003 until joining the Intermediate Court.
When Lingle leaves office in December, she will have appointed 17 of the 33 Circuit Court judges, all but one of the six Intermediate Court judges and two Supreme Court justices. Recktenwald’s confirmation would leave an open spot on the five-justice high court, probably to be nominated by Hawaii’s next governor.
Recktenwald was a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1991 to 1997, and 1999 to 2003. He has earned support from both the acting city prosecutor and state Public Defender Jack Tonaki, who calls him a "centrist" who "has ruled down the middle."
Concerns about Leonard’s leadership and administrative capabilities do not apply to Recktenwald. The governor confidently has spoken of his "exceptional leadership ability" and "strong administrative experience," most notably as head of a state department, as employees have attested.
Democratic legislators have indicated that they don’t believe a Republican-appointed judge is likely to steer the high court in a direction different than that taken by his Democratic-appointed predecessors. Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Taniguchi appears comfortable with that.
The committee is expected to approve Recktenwald’s nomination on Wednesday, and the full Senate should confirm the nomination the next day.