Hawaii State Bar Association Unqualified in Its Assessment of Judge Katherine Leonard

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BY CARSON HENSARLING – The recent controversy over the “unqualified” ratings given to two of Governor Lingle’s judge nominees comes to mind when thinking about topics of “controversy.”

On Monday, the Hawaii State Bar Association rated Chief Justice Nominee Judge Katherine Leonard as unqualified. This rating shocked Leonard’s supporters including Governor Lingle and former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice, Robert Klein. Klein spoke out stating, “I am surprised and shocked that a small number of the people in the bar decided that she was unqualified.”


Looking at Leonard’s resume, I am hard pressed to find a reason for an unqualified rating. She has practiced law for 16 years and served as a judge on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals for two years. Also, in order to start with the Intermediate Court of Appeals, she had to be rated as “qualified” by the HSBA just two years ago. To top it off, she has the recommendation of a former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice, whom she clerked for in the Supreme Court. It seems to me that a man who served on the Supreme Court for fourteen years would be able to make accurate judgments on the qualifications needed for the position of Chief Justice.

The most controversial aspect of this turn of events is that the HSBA refuses to give a reason for their rating. It is the same story for Circuit Court nominee, Faauuga To’oto’o. When questioned by an upset judiciary committee, as to why there was no explanation for the ratings, Hugh Jones, president of the state bar association, stated “It’s certainly not a comfortable thing for any of us to have to do, but our constitution does mandate that we do it.”

Now, this statement caught my eye, and left me with a few questions. Does our constitution really mandate that no one outside of the Bar know why the Bar is making their decisions? Which constitution was Jones referring to? After wiping the stunned gaze off my face, I read through HSBA’s ten page constitution. Nowhere did I find any mandate of confidentiality or any rule binding the Bar from giving the reasons for their rating to anyone outside the Bar. I then, moved on to the Hawaii State Constitution, reading through all sections relating to the judicial branch of the state government, yet again to no avail. Maybe I am misinterpreting the intent of the authors of the constitution, where they actually wanted there to be no government transparency and a judicial appointment system run by an oligarchy.

I would hope that the Senate has a different understanding of the judicial appointment system and the importance of accountability in their decisions. Not just for their sake, but for Katherine Leonard’s sake, for Faauuga To’oto’o’s sake, and for the sake of the people of Hawaii.

Carson Hensarling is an intern with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii