comscore Passion for public service paved chief justice's path | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Hawaii News

Passion for public service paved chief justice’s path

Honolulu Star-Advertiser logo
Unlimited access to premium stories for as low as $12.95 /mo.
Get It Now
    Mark Recktenwald will be sworn in Tuesday as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court. "I grew up on the mainland, but the longer I've lived in Hawaii, the closer I've been drawn to this place, its values, its people to the point now when I go to the mainland, I'm very clearly away from home," he said.

The state’s first mainland-born chief justice came to Hawaii in 1980 as an advance man for presidential candidate John B. Anderson’s campaign and later married the first person he met when he got off the plane.

He returned after Anderson lost, working at the state Legislature and then as a news reporter here.

Mark Recktenwald went back to his Chicago hometown for law school before launching a legal career here that led to Gov. Linda Lingle appointing him as the state’s fifth chief justice for the next 10 years.

"I grew up on the mainland, but the longer I’ve lived in Hawaii, the closer I’ve been drawn to this place, its values, its people, to the point now when I go to the mainland, I’m very clearly away from home," the Kailua resident told the Star-Advertiser on Thursday. "This is my home."

Recktenwald, 54, is scheduled to be sworn in as chief justice 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Hawaii Supreme Court courtroom.

He has been lauded as possessing strong leadership and management skills, which those close to him say make him suited for the job.

"He’s a good listener," said Honolulu lawyer Mike Nauyokas, a close friend. "He keeps his mouth shut and takes it all in and he never jumps to conclusions."

Born in Detroit as the only child of Bill, a patent attorney, and Connie, a teacher and later a homemaker, Recktenwald moved with his family to a Chicago suburb when he was 8 years old. At Harvard University, he studied to become an archaeologist, spending a summer in South America on a field trip.

After graduation, he migrated to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a researcher for a congressional agency on the then-relatively new concept of national health insurance, and later for Senate committees, including assisting in an investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident.

He worked with individuals he called "great role models," public interest lawyers and investigative journalists, and decided to switch from a career in archaeology, he said.

Recktenwald took an active role in the Anderson campaign, taking a vacation to return to Chicago as a volunteer for the Illinois congressman, who challenged Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, then ran as an independent in the general election.

Recktenwald recalled standing on street corners handing out leaflets to passers-by who really didn’t seem interested in Anderson’s candidacy.

BUT ANDERSON’S campaign caught fire when he came in a strong second in the Massachusetts primary, and Recktenwald saw firsthand the national media descending on what the campaign thought would be a relatively uneventful gathering at a Chicago campus.

"For the first time, I saw the full force of the national media and the intense interest in the national political process," he said.

The Anderson campaign offered him a job as the advance man to travel around the country to help set up rallies, fundraisers, factory walk-throughs, "do whatever you do to build a crowd," he said.

One of 10 states he visited was Hawaii, where he met the former Gailynn Mahoe, who grew up in Nuuanu. She was an Anderson campaign worker who volunteered to pick up the advance man. They married in 1985 and have three children. Gailynn Williamson, who kept her name from a former marriage, is a philosophy professor at Leeward Community College.

Recktenwald was here for a week helping set up events for Anderson’s running mate, former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey. He returned to the campaign trail, then was out of a job when Anderson lost.

He came back to Hawaii, got a job as a clerk for then-Republican Sen. Ann Kobayashi’s Ecology, Environment and Recreation Committee for a session, then as a reporter in the United Press International’s cramped second-floor bureau office at the News Building on Kapiolani Boulevard.

Recktenwald churned out rewrites of newspaper stories for radio and television and wrote features and stories on Prosecutor Charles Marsland, Oahu prison disturbances and an airline that drew media attention by landing a plane here that was had slot machines aboard.

It was a combination of his desire to "make an impact in public service" and his lousy skills as a teletype operator at the bureau, he halfway jokes, that made him attend the University of Chicago law school, where he excelled, getting selected for the law review.

He returned to Hawaii as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Harold Fong in 1986 before joining the Goodsill Anderson law firm. He was part of the law firm’s team that wrote the appeals brief for Mayor Frank Fasi that got a reversal from the Hawaii Supreme Court of a $500,000 fraud jury verdict over the aborted Waiola housing project.

Because he wanted experience in trial work, Recktenwald went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Daniel Bent in 1991 and spent six years as a federal prosecutor handling bank robbery cases as well as the prosecution of fishing vessel crews trying to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants to Hawaii.

In 1997, he became a partner in the Marr Jones law firm, but had a nagging feeling there was "something missing."

"It was a real crossroads for me," he said. "I had realized that at that point the thing that made me passionate about getting up in the morning and going to work was public service. That’s what really excited me. That’s what fueled me. That’s what made me feel like I was doing something for a cause that was greater than just me. I realized I needed that in my life to be happy."

He left the lucrative partnership in 1999, took a pay cut and went back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Steven Alm, now a circuit judge, before he applied for and became Lingle’s director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs in 2003.

"I thought it was an exciting opportunity to contribute in a leadership role," he said.

His success as the administrator and the way he worked with employees became well-known as the department was able to save millions of dollars and reduce business registration fees.

Lingle tapped him as chief judge for the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 2007 and as an associate justice last year, putting him on the fast track for what many felt would be the chief justice appointment.

Recktenwald, a former Republican Party member who supported Lingle in her two campaigns for governor, remembered the phone call when she told him it was a "very difficult decision," but he wasn’t the choice.

"I told her I completely understood and I respected her decision," he said.

Recktenwald said he wasn’t disappointed.

"My thought was that I would do everything I could to be the best associate justice I could be," he said.

After Lingle’s chief justice nomination of appeals judge Katherine Leonard was rejected by the Senate, Recktenwald met with Lingle and he talked about his vision for the court, the Judiciary administration and the challenges, he said.

A day or so later, she offered him the job.

One concern underlying that public testimony overwhelmingly in his behalf was that his prosecutorial background might lead to him to push the court in a more conservative direction.

But Recktenwald gave a ringing endorsement of the state Constitution as a "unique and wonderful" document during his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and said it’s "well-settled" that Hawaii’s Constitution provides broader rights than the U.S. Constitution.

During an interview, he specified that it also includes rights of criminal defendants, a controversial issue that led prosecutors to successfully campaign in recent elections for constitutional amendments negating Hawaii Supreme Court rulings.

Recktenwald, who refuses to discuss any judicial philosophy because he wants to keep an open mind and judge each case on the merits, agrees with the assessment that he won’t take an activist role in pushing the court in any direction.

"I don’t see the mandate of the chief justice or the role of the chief justice moving the court in a particular direction ideologically," he said.

"I think the strength of the court comes from the diversity of our different perspectives and from having each of us decide a case as we think it should be decided," he added.

This also applies, he said, to Associate Justice Simeon Acoba, who is known for his dissents and past clashes with former Associate Justice Steven Levinson.

Recktenwald said he has he "highest regard" for Acoba.

"The only thing I would do with Justice Acoba is work with him and embrace and celebrate the work he does," Recktenwald said.

Recktenwald, who has sat on the court for more than a year as an associate justice, said he thinks the justices work well together and that he looks forward to his new job.

"I’m humbled and honored to have this opportunity and to work with the employees of the judiciary, the bar and the public to address the challenges we have ahead," he said.


Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up