One year ago today, Gov. David Ige introduced Clare Connors as his choice to serve as Hawaii’s 16th attorney general. The articulate, soft-spoken lawyer wasted no time in tackling difficult, headline-grabbing issues.
In February, Connors petitioned the Hawaii Supreme Court to suspend Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, who had become a target of a federal criminal probe, citing potential conflicts of interest. Her office also has taken a prominent role in the Mauna Kea protests, assisting in the prosecution of those arrested on the mauna and issuing a subpoena to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which has provided financial help to the protesters.
In addition, Connors’ office joined other states in pursuing common interests, including protecting the rights of immigrants; women’s access to reproductive health care (including abortion); cracking down on opioid abuse; environmental protections; gender-identity rights; and gun violence legislation. But while her office’s positions often challenge Trump administration policies, she views the issues more broadly.
“I don’t really see it as being political,” Connors said. “I do see it really as protecting the public, in perhaps a very large scale and comprehensive way, but certainly as it affects people’s lives on a very individual basis.”
Connors grew up in Kailua, steeped in the values of public service. Her parents, a former Roman Catholic priest and nun, served in the Maryknoll order, a missionary society dedicated to serving the poor in communities around the world.
“They raised us as Catholics,” Connors said. “They also raised us with the idea of being active Catholics, of being people who … actively addressed issues that we saw that needed to be fixed or worked on, and that ranged from community service to just being part of the larger problem-solving community.”
Before taking her present job, Connors had never worked in state government. She worked for the New York City parks department before graduating from Harvard Law School in 2002. She was a federal prosecutor in Hawaii and Virginia, focusing on complex white-collar criminal cases such as tax fraud. President Barack Obama nominated her to be a U.S. District Court judge for Hawaii, an appointment that stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. She was a partner with the local law firm Davis Levin Livingston before becoming state attorney general.
Connors lives in Kailua with her family, and remains an active churchgoer. Last spring, she and her mother taught a Confirmation class, a sacrament “where we go out and serve,” she said. “So I thought that was a really important one.”
Question: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
Answer: I was working in the (New York City) parks department … I had been in it for about three years and I was taking a step back to see what might be next. (My boss) said, “Well, just take a look around you. A lot of people who are working in government are lawyers because they have taken the time to understand how legal processes work. They’ve taken the time to understand how people engage, and oftentimes the framework for engagement is the law. And you will be a better public servant if you take the time to understand the law and then come back to us as a lawyer and make New York City government better.”
(Laughs) And that’s what I intended to do, but I discovered the Department of Justice when I was a 1L (first-year law student) and came out here to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and decided that I’m going to try my hand at being a prosecutor.
Q: What are the primary responsibilities of your office?
A: The primary responsibility … is to provide quality legal services to the three branches of government and on behalf of the people of Hawaii. In addition to providing legal advice to our state government officials, the attorney general is responsible for protecting the public, both through our civil and criminal divisions.
Q: What are your top priorities?
A: My top priority is to strengthen public confidence in government by addressing fraud, theft, public corruption and other matters that erode such confidence. In addition to undertaking complex investigations of such conduct, I want to ensure that compliance measures are instituted to reduce the prospect of future misconduct, and to address mismanagement and inefficiency.
To this end, I have created a Complex Litigation, Fraud and Compliance Unit tasked with investigating fraud, initiating criminal and civil litigation, providing audit-type services to both our litigation and non-litigation divisions involved in administrative, civil and criminal enforcement actions, and establishing procedures to ensure compliance with the law and all ethical obligations.
It’s really exciting to me, because it combines the two primary areas that I’ve worked in as a lawyer, which is a federal prosecutor doing complex white-collar crime, and as a plaintiff’s attorney bringing cases on behalf of the people who need justice in the legal system. …This allows us to really focus, at the executive level, our resources to engage in investigations that I think make government better.
Q: How do you determine when Hawaii will join other states in advocating on national issues?
A: I engage in a two-part analysis when deciding whether to initiate and/or join ongoing litigation on a national level. First, there needs to be a significant legal issue at stake. Second, the matter needs to have an impact on the lives of Hawaii residents. Joining with other states in these types of challenges helps us effectively pool resources and also ensures that any beneficial litigation outcomes apply to our state.
Q: Can OHA legally provide funds or other support to the Mauna Kea protesters, even if the protesters are violating the law?
A: While OHA has a broad mission to fulfill under the Hawaii Constitution, its resources should not be used to support illegal activity.
Q: Why did you subpoena OHA records?
A: Obviously, we issued the subpoena because there are issues we believe need to be looked at. I won’t comment beyond that because it’s our department’s policy not to do that. Part of what we do in any investigation is evaluate all the different issues, all the evidence, all the facts and then decide what type of action is appropriate for our office to take, if there is any. And that’s what we’ll do with this case.
Q: What is the nature of the state’s obligation, if any, to clear the way for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea?
A: We are evaluating all the different legal ramifications of this, for sure, but it’s a very complicated situation. First of all, the important thing is that TIO (TMT International Observatory LLC) is a private entity. It makes its own decisions about how and when to proceed. We have played a larger role in this case in support of the (Hawaii County) police department in doing what it can to ensure that access can be granted so that construction that is lawfully allowed can happen. That doesn’t mean that we can tell TIO when and how to build or that we can control what a private company does. … Again, this is a complicated situation and presently the state continues to work with TIO and all stakeholders.
Q: What do you tell those who say the Ige administration isn’t doing anything to stop this illegal activity?
A: The administration is doing quite a bit right now to work through this very unprecedented moment in our history. Not everything makes it into the media, but there are conversations happening every day by members of the administration. Our office is engaged every day on matters that are related to trying to find a way to move forward with the current situation on Mauna Kea.
Q: You’ve been in public service and in private practice. Do you have a preference?
A: They are both wonderful professions and they both made me feel every single day that I was making a difference in someone’s life, and that’s what was important. … When I was with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, it was the victims who motivated me to do the types of cases I did. And when I was with my prior law firm as a plaintiff’s attorney, it was trying to help people in the legal system and trying to shoulder some of their burdens as they walked through really terrible moments in their lives.
Justice (James) Duffy has often said that the law is a healing profession, and I think that’s right.