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Fewer women applying for judge positions in Hawaii

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    Women make up half the adult population in Hawaii yet they only make up 39 percent of the 80 bench seats.


    “If we have a broader range of points of view, a broader range of perspectives and experiences represented on the bench, it will help us understand the community, help us understand the challenges that folks are facing when they come to court,” said Mark Recktenwald, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Hawaii, on having a diverse bench — not just in gender but by ethnicity and other attributes.

In the early 2000s, women held just over a third of the judge positions in state courts, a level that raised concerns about too few females serving on the bench.

Women make up half the state’s adult population, and a judicial bench that reflects the community it serves is considered vital for an effective court system.

Over the past nearly 15 years, however, the proportion of women serving as full-time state judges has improved only slightly, disappointing those who believe more parity is essential.

Today, women make up 39 percent of the 80 bench seats, compared with 36 percent in 2004.

And the rate that women apply for openings has slowed in recent years, prompting questions about why more are not seeking the jobs.

From 2012 through 2016, men applied at a rate 2-1/2 times that of women, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser analysis of online Judiciary data. Since then, the rate has increased to nearly 3-1/2 times.


>> 39: Percentage of women in state judge positions
>> 36: Percentage in 2004
>> 41: Percentage if Senate approves pending appointments
>> 2-1/2: Rate of men over women in applying for state judgeships, 2012-2016
>> 3-1/2: Men-to-women applicant rate from 2017

The disparity has persisted even as the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law has churned out more women than men graduates over the years.

In 2005, for instance, 61 women obtained their law degrees, compared with 40 men. This year 48 women and 44 men graduated.

The disparity in bench applicants also has persisted even as the number of active women lawyers with at least five years experience — a minimum requirement for District Court judges — has steadily increased.

“Clearly, what we’ve been doing — nothing — is not working,” said Rep. Sylvia Luke, an attorney and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

She and House Speaker Scott Saiki, also an attorney, would like to see the disparity issue addressed in the coming legislative session. They are talking about possible reforms to the Judicial Selection Commission, which screens applicants for bench seats and provides lists of nominees to Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and Gov. David Ige, depending on the slot to be filled.

The legislators also want the legal community, including the Hawaii State Bar Association, to do more to address the disparity. One idea: conduct a confidential survey of bar members to find out why fewer women are applying for judgeships.

The pool of active women lawyers in Hawaii who have at least five years legal experience — the minimum qualification for a District Court judge — has been growing even as the rate of women applying for judgeships has declined.

>> 2018: 1,510
>> 2017: 1,499
>> 2016: 1,456
>> 2015: 1,400
>> 2014: 1,522
>> 2013: 1,481
>> 2012: 1,395
>> 2011: 1,291
>> 2010: 1,258

Source: Hawaii State Bar Association, Star-Advertiser research

“It’s very disappointing that the commission and the bar association lament the fact that more women do not apply but don’t do anything to address the situation,” Saiki said.

Representatives from the commission, bar and Judiciary say meetings have been held in recent years with women lawyers and others to encourage more candidates to apply and to demystify the application process.

The commission a few times has had to extend application deadlines because not enough attorneys applied to meet even the minimum number of nominee names the panel must submit to the governor or chief justice.

Recktenwald and Jackie Young, the commission chairwoman, cited progress made in recent years toward gender parity, including three women awaiting Senate confirmation for District Court positions.

Recktenwald last month appointed Honolulu deputy prosecutor Kristine Yoo, Big Island private attorney Mahilani Hiatt and Wendy DeWeese, a deputy public defender also from Hawaii island, to the District bench, along with Kenneth Shimozono, a Honolulu criminal defense attorney.

If the four are confirmed by the Senate, which meets in a special session July 9 and 10 to consider the nominations, women will hold 41 percent of full-time state judgeships.

State judges in Hawaii earn six-figure salaries. The breakdown:

>> Chief justice, Supreme Court: $236,100
>> Associate justice, Supreme Court: $227,664
>> Chief judge, Intermediate Court of Appeals: $219,252
>> Associate judge, ICA: $210,780
>> Circuit judge: $205,080
>> District/Family judge: $193,272

Source: Hawaii Judiciary

“We’re moving in a positive direction in terms of having increased diversity on the bench,” said Recktenwald, who has named 17 women and 15 men to District and Family Court positions since becoming chief justice in 2010.

Recktenwald is responsible for appointing judges to the lower courts, drawing from a list of at least six nominees the commission must provide for each open spot. If the Senate confirms his four pending nominees, women will represent 49 percent of the District and Family bench seats, he added.

Ige appoints jurists for the Circuit and appellate courts, likewise making selections from a nominee list of four to six names provided by the commission. Judges at all levels must be confirmed by the Senate.

Four of the 13 appointments Ige has made since becoming governor have been women, including Lisa Ginoza, Hawaii’s first women chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Having a diverse bench that reflects the population it serves — not just in gender but by ethnicity and other attributes — is considered important for the effective administration of justice.

“If we have a broader range of points of view, a broader range of perspectives and experiences represented on the bench, it will help us understand the community, help us understand the challenges that folks are facing when they come to court,” Recktenwald told the Star-Advertiser. “It improves the quality of our decision-making and our strength as an institution.”

A bench that is reflective of the community also “increases people’s confidence in the fairness of the court when they can look down the hall of the courthouse and see folks who look like them,” he added.

Recktenwald stressed, however, that he does not pick women simply to achieve a more diverse bench. He said he selects nominees whom he believes will make superb jurists, have deep commitments to the community and will make a difference.

Recktenwald acknowledged that more needs to be done on the diversity front, but “there’s a lot of positives that have happened up until now and a lot we can build on.”


Recktenwald, Young and others were unsure why fewer women are applying for bench seats. Salaries range from $193,272 for district and family court judges to $236,100 for the chief justice. Circuit judges make $205,080 annually.

Because no survey has been done, leaders in the legal community have only anecdotal evidence to try to explain the disparity in applications.

Some say that by the time women attorneys accumulate the qualifications needed, they typically are in their child-rearing years or already have started a family, and the demands on a judge’s schedule don’t fit well with raising children or allow much time for other things during the day.

“When you’re a judge, you really don’t have a lot of flexibility,” said Victoria Marks, who spent 21 years on the bench before retiring in 2009.

Cultural and societal expectations also play a role, just like they do in many other professions in which women are underrepresented, including at the state Legislature and Cabinet and in Congress.

Not as many women as men lawyers tend to see judgeships as career goals, and that’s reflected in what candidates often tell the commission and the bar.

Patricia Mau-Shimizu, the bar’s executive director, said male applicants generally say they have long been interested in becoming a judge and reached a point in their careers when getting on the bench would be a good move. But the women generally say they only applied after someone suggested doing so, Mau-Shimizu said.

“Women need more encouragement,” she added.

The move toward parity suffered a setback in 2009 when at least five women judges retired, including Marks. It took time to recover from that.

Still, some say too little progress has been made over the past 15 years and more pressure must be placed on those making the decisions.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Amy Agbayani, a retired University of Hawaii diversity administrator who served on the selection commission in the 1990s.

Young, who is one of three females on the nine-member commission today, said getting women to apply for judgeships is similar in difficulty to getting women to run for elected office. “To me, it’s comparable to politics,” she said.

Luke said she believes the disparity traces to the mid-2000s when five women judges were not retained, reportedly for reasons of temperament.

The commission decides whether to retain judges following their initial terms, which is 10 years on the Circuit bench and six at the District level.

Legislators and others in the mid-2000s were outraged because male judges did not appear to be held to the same standard, Luke and others said. Women lawyers still remember that.

“It still stings,” said Sen. Laura Thielen, an attorney and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which evaluates the judge nominees.

But Thielen said she applauds the number of women Recktenwald has appointed to the bench without compromising on quality.

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