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Judicial posts lure fewer applicants

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The number of applicants for higher-level state judgeships has been decreasing over the years, according to data released Tuesday by state Judicial Selection Commission members who want to see more applications for future vacancies.

One glaring example: 24 people applied for a vacancy on the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2003, but only seven applied for a high court vacancy last year and only nine for a vacancy this year.

“My concern is it’s a shrinking pool, and you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to figure out a shrinking pool is not good for any job,” said commission member Jeffrey Portnoy.

Commission Chairwoman Susan Ichi­nose cautioned that the commission is not criticizing any of the current judges.

“The point is we want to do the best job possible for the people of the state of Hawaii,” she said. “That means we want to attract a lot more people.”

The release of the data was a result of the commission amending its rules last year to lift some of its confidentiality restrictions.

The changes included releasing the names of the commission’s finalists for judicial positions when the panel submits its lists to the governor and chief justice.

Under the state Constitution, the governor must fill vacancies on the Hawaii Supreme Court, the state appeals court and the circuit courts from lists of names submitted by the commission.

The chief justice picks district court judges from the commission’s lists.

All appointments are subject to state Senate confirmation.

The lists of finalists have been made public in the past, but the nine-member commission released Tuesday the total number of applicants and their genders for judicial appointments for the past 10 years — information that previously was confidential.

The commissioners themselves just received the data and did not have a chance to thoroughly review them for trends.

But it appears that the applications for higher judicial positions have decreased.

For the high court, 24 — 18 men and six women — applied for the vacancy that was filled by former Associate Justice James Duffy in 2003.

Only 10 (eight men and two women) applied in 2009 for another high court vacancy, seven (six men and one woman) applied for a high court vacancy last year and nine (six men and three women) applied for a vacancy this year.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle named Mark Recktenwald to fill the 2009 vacancy. Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed to the high court Sabrina McKenna — the only female applicant — last year and Richard Pollack this year.

For the 2010 chief justice vacancy, 12 people (nine men and three women) applied for the position now held by Recktenwald.

The commission must submit four to six names for vacancies on the high court, which resulted in a majority of the applicants making the finalist lists for the last two high court openings.

Portnoy said his view is that the number of private attorneys applying for the vacancies has been decreasing.

The commissioners said there may be a range of reasons for the decline.

They include judicial salaries, the application process, the Senate confirmation hearings, the disclosure of the finalists’ names, the constraints on judges’ lifestyles and the political inclinations of the appointing authority.

But some members agreed the major reason is the judicial pay in Hawaii, which was ranked lowest among the nation’s state courts in 2010.

“I would put it on the top of the list,” commission member James Bickerton said.

In an attempt to attract more candidates, the commission for the first time has been conducting informal meetings with lawyers throughout the state.

The aim is to inform lawyers about the commission and its operations, and persuade them to apply for judicial positions.

The last session was Tuesday at the Hawaii Supreme Court conference room, just prior to the release of the data.

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