BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – U.S. District Court Judge David Alan Ezra, the longest serving active federal judge in Hawaii’s history, will take senior status after June 27 when he turns 65 years old.
The designation of Senior U.S. District Judge enables Ezra to have more leeway in selecting the cases he wants to oversee, to have a reduced case load if he so requests, and to travel more freely to help other districts in need an experienced federal judge.
For nearly 25 years, Ezra has ruled over some of Hawaii’s most controversial and bizarre cases.
There was what came to be known as the Felix Consent Decree, which started with a lawsuit filed in 1993 by the family of Jennifer Felix, a special education student on Maui, over a lack of services for mentally disabled students in the public school system, and ended 12 years later with the lawsuit terminated after the state reported on a plan to become “compliant” and spent an estimated $1 billion.
There was the long line fishing case brought in February 1999 by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the Center for Marine Conservation and Turtle Island Restoration Network against the National Marine Fisheries Service. Ezra ruled for the plaintiffs, who charged the agency with violating the National Environmental Policy Act when it did not protect endangered sea turtles from being killed by longline fisherman. Ezra was picketed as a result of his 2000 ruling, which ordered longline fishing practice modifications. The fishing industry claimed the business would “die”, Ezra recounted, noting the prediction did not come true. “It did anything but die and actually picked up,” Ezra said.
Before that, Ezra oversaw a more unusual case in October 1997, Hawaii County Green Party v Clinton, when the Green Party on the Big Island filed suit against the federal government to stop the Cassini Mission.
The government was planning to send to Saturn the most powerful space probe ever fired – a Titan IV/Centaur rocket – to the study the planet and its moons and rings. It launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on October 13, 1997. The local Green Party tried to block that from happening by filing a restraining order.
“They thought the rocket would spew radioactive fuel, but I found the government took adequate precaution,” Ezra said.
The state of Hawaii has no capital punishment law in place, which makes the death penalty trial Ezra will oversee this September all the more controversial. The case involves an Army soldier, Naeem Williams, who is charged with murdering his 5-year-old daughter in 2005 in what prosecutors described as an “especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner in that it involved torture and serious physical abuse.” Williams’ wife also was charged in the case.
Ezra grew up in Hawaii, graduated from St. Louis School, and attended Chaminade College and the University of Hawaii, and received a B.B.A. degree Magna Cum Laude from St. Mary’s University. At St. Mary’s University Law School he graduated first in his class before enlisting in the military.
For four years, Ezra worked as a partner in the firm of Anthony, Hoddick, Reinwald & O’Connor in 1976, focusing on construction litigation, and in 1980, he formed his own law firm, Ezra, O’Connor, Moon & Tam.
In 1988, Ezra was named by then President Ronald Reagan as the youngest federal judge in Hawaii’s history. Over the years, with the permission of Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he worked in several other districts throughout the country.
Many young lawyers have mentored under Ezra through his lecture status at the University of Hawaii, which he has maintained since 1978 teaching courses in Legal Remedies and Federal Courts.
Ezra is the Vice President of the U.S. Federal Judges Association. According to his biography on the University of Hawaii law school web site, he is a past member of several organizations including the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit; the Executive Committee of the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference; the Judicial Conference Committee on Administration of the Bankruptcy System; the Court-Council Committee on Bankruptcy Appointments; the Board of Trustees of St. Louis High School; the Evaluation Committee of the Ninth Circuit; the Pacific Islands Committee of the Ninth Circuit and the Board of Directors of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society.
Over more than two decades, Ezra had many firsts for Hawaii including being the first from Hawaii to serve as President of the Ninth Circuit U.S. District Judges Association and the only Hawaii judge to be elected a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States. He was awarded the Rosewood Gavel Award in 2007.
Jeff Portnoy, an expert on the First Amendment and media, took the Bar exam at the same time as Ezra and has followed his career since.
Ezra has been a hard working, dedicated, first rate U.S. District court judge, and the legal community and parties who have come before him “have gotten a fair shake,” said Portnoy, who is with the firm of Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright.
Portnoy, an attorney for many of Hawaii’s media outlets including Hawaii Reporter, said Ezra has been a “very strong proponent” on cases before him on First Amendment issues, and he “hopes Judge Ezra will continue to remain very active.”
Ezra doesn’t seem to have any plans to slow down. Besides the death penalty case this coming September and others, he continues to oversee a complex case in Arizona – Roosevelt Irrigation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District – considered one of the largest environmental cases in the state’s history. The case was filed in 2008 after the state’s water wells were allegedly contaminated. A record 60 law firms are involved.
U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Dan Akaka, D-Hawaii, will establish a 9-member commission to oversee finding a replacement for Ezra. The committee will include Attorney Larry Okinaga as chair and Bennette Misalucha Evangelista, Lynn Fallin, Allen Hoe, Donavan Kealoha, Janice Kim, Marie Milks (retired judge), Jeff Sia and Tony Takitani as committee members.