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Senate Judiciary Committee to convene, but no plans for legislative mask mandate

The state Senate’s Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet in special session Monday to review two judicial appointments but has no plans to discuss whether to clarify that masks are mandatory across the state to curb the spread of COVID-19.

For weeks lawmakers and others have been calling on Gov. David Ige to declare in a supplemental emergency proclamation that masks are required. Ige’s office has said that his proclamations already mandate that masks must be worn.

But confusion remains.

“A mask mandate is already in place,” Senate President Ron Kouchi told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Thursday. “The governor has consistently said in the proclamation there is a statewide mask mandate, and it is based on what the counties have ordered.”

What’s needed, Kouchi said, is a uniform policy among all four island counties.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said residents and visitors are confused because “the mask coverings are dictated by the counties, not the state. I told the governor and the (attorney general) that a proclamation needs to say that all persons must wear face coverings while in public. Period. The counties are required to enforce this order. Period. The way it’s currently written, it is not clear it is a statewide order. To me it’s a county-by-county order, and that’s why there’s an extensive amount of confusion throughout the state.”

Both Saiki and Kouchi agree that the Legislature should not meet in special session to clarify mask-wearing rules. But Kouchi said there could be legislation to reduce the misdemeanor penalty for not wearing a mask to something more like a traffic citation.

“I agree that the current misdemeanor penalty is too stringent,” Saiki said. “The violation should be the equivalent of a parking ticket where you pay a fine.”

Mufi Hannemann, chief executive officer and president of the Hawai‘i Lodging &Tourism Association, told Saiki on Monday that the visitor industry wants the Legislature to convene a special session to draft a bill requiring mask wearing or take up the issue during the upcoming regular session.

Saiki, co-chairman of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, on Thursday repeated his response to Hannemann that it would be “unwieldy” to try to create a law requiring masks while the issues around the COVID-19 pandemic continue to evolve.

“If we enact a statute that imposes a statewide mask order, whenever circumstances change it would require the Legislature to reconvene in a session to make a statutory change. It would be very unwieldy.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday is scheduled to review two judicial appointments: Ige’s nomination of 1st Circuit Court Judge Todd Eddins to be Hawaii’s next associate Supreme Court justice; and Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald’s appointment of Deputy Public Defender Stephanie Char to the District Family Court of the 5th Circuit, which includes Kauai and Niihau.

Both nominations require Senate confirmation. A series of committee and full Senate hearings is scheduled for next week to consider the nominations.

If confirmed, Eddins will serve as one of four associate justices, in addition to Recktenwald. Eddins would replace associate Justice Richard Pollack, who retired in July after reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

Eddins has been a judge since 2017 after working as a public defender and an attorney in private practice. In 2016, while in private practice, Eddins helped successfully defend then-sitting Hawaii island Mayor Billy Kenoi of corruption charges.

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