It looks like Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s "New Day in Hawaii" includes a return to the dark ages of secret dealings in appointing the state’s top judges.
The governor introduced Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna yesterday as the first of three associate justices he’ll nominate for the five-member state Supreme Court early in his term. The Senate must confirm.
McKenna is an experienced trial judge and a seemingly credible pick, but it’s alarming that Abercrombie stripped transparency from the process by ending his predecessor’s practice of naming the candidates submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission and allowing public comment before making a choice.
It leaves the public with no voice in the vetting, no chance to judge the quality or diversity of candidates put forth by the secretive selection panel and no way to see any politics at play in the governor’s pick.
The nine-member commission is named by the governor, Legislature, chief justice and Hawaii State Bar Association to screen judicial applicants, and the governor must choose from the panel’s list in appointing to the Supreme Court, Intermediate Court of Appeals and Circuit Court.
Former Gov. Linda Lingle routinely made public the commission’s six candidates for each vacancy and solicited comment.
Former Chief Justice Ronald Moon allowed the same public vetting in appointing District Court judges from the commission’s lists, and new Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald says he’ll continue the practice.
Abercrombie claims confidentiality is necessary to assure quality applicants, but that’s nonsense; Moon and Recktenwald surely would have raised the concern if it was compelling.
This is about providing political cover for the governor and the state’s power establishment as they maneuver to shape the legal system to their liking without the inconvenience of public scrutiny.
Without transparency — a word Abercrombie used a lot while campaigning — there is no accountability in filling some of Hawaii’s most powerful positions, and we’ve seen the consequences of going down that dark road.
The similarly secretive judicial selections of previous administrations unraveled during the Bishop Estate scandal of the late 1990s, exposing an unholy system of back scratching and horse trading that corrupted the Judicial Selection Commission, the high court and our political institutions.
The late Senior U.S. District Judge Samuel King argued persuasively that the selection commission, which was supposed to remove the politics from picking judges, was instead used to conceal the politics.
Naming the candidates provided some protection against political manipulation, and Abercrombie disregards the painful lessons we learned by refusing to let the sunshine in.
There is no valid reason for this level of secrecy in filling positions with so much power over our lives, and we should be suspicious of what the governor is trying to hide.