BY JIM DOOLEY – A much-delayed lawsuit concerning the Hawaii public school system’s treatment of two autistic girls in the mid-1990’s is set to go to trial in October and could cost the state “millions of dollars” in damages for each of the girls, according to public records.

Long delays in the case are attributable to rulings by an octogenarian federal court judge, Manuel Real, whose erratic courtroom behavior and quixotic legal decisions have brought him repeated rebukes and reversals from his appellate court superiors.

The parents of the girls first filed the lawsuit in 2000, alleging that the state had denied the two sisters crucial special education services from 1994 to 1998. The children, identified only as Natalie and Michelle in the suit, were just two and three years old in 1994. They are now 19 and 20.

The suit was filed after an administrative hearings officer first determined that the claim had merit.

Services given the children by the Department of Education improved after 1998, but by that time their educational and social development had been permanently stunted, according to the suit.

Judge Real, 87, who was sitting in the Hawaii District Court as a visiting judge, first tossed out the

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real

lawsuit in 2005. That decision was reversed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008, which remanded the case back to Real with an order that the plaintiffs be allowed to re-draw their complaint.

Real, who is based in Los Angeles, dismissed the amended complaint in March 2009 and the plaintiffs appealed once again to the 9th Circuit.

That court reversed Real once more a year ago, and then ordered that the case be taken away from him. appellate ruling

“Judge Real has presided over this case twice now, even though the case was originally assigned to him through his temporary assignment to the District of Hawaii,” the 9th Circuit wrote. “Accordingly, we direct the Clerk of the United States District Court for Hawaii to reassign this case to a different judge.”

While the re-assignment order is unusual for most judges , it has happened numerous times to Real.

The lawsuit is now before U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi and is set for trial in October.

Earlier this month, the Hawaii Attorney General’s office sought permission to pay as much as $500,000 to a private attorney, Kenneth Robbins, who has been supervising the defense case as a special deputy attorney general.

Robbins was hired under a $300,000 contract in 2009 but now the state wants to add another $200,000 to the deal.

“The state’s potential exposure in this case is in the millions of dollars per child,” the Attorney General’s office told the state procurement office last week.

“The parties are currently in settlement negotiations; however, with an October trial date looming, (Robbins) must continue to prepare for trial in the event the case does not settle,” the AG memo said. AG memo

Robbins declined comment on the suit.

Michael Livingston, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, is travelling and unavailable for comment, his office said.