In a packed hearing room at the State Capitol today, Judge Katherine Leonard defended her judicial experience and argued that she was an excellent nominee to become Hawaii’s next supreme court justice.

Judge Leonard, 50, told the Senate Judiciary Committee about her blue-collar upbringing growing up in Wisconsin, and how she came to love the people of Hawaii after moving here at the age of 22. She took issue with the Hawaii State Bar Association’s rating her as unqualified, noting that she had been endorsed by the bar when she was nominated and confirmed to the state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Senators had tough questions about her perceived lack of administrative experience and a tendency to favor large corporations and developers over individuals, some Native Hawaiians. But the bar association and its process came under fire from Attorney General Mark Bennett, who spoke in favor of her nomination, as did the state public defender, John Tonaki.

Sen. Clayton Hee, a Native Hawaiian, noted that Leonard’s judicial record included very little involving Hawaiian issues. Leonard said Hawaiian rights are enshrined in the state’s Constitution. (The CEO of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs submitted testimony supporting Leonard’s nomination and Kamaki Kanahele, with Hawaiian Homelands Assembly, spoke at the hearing in favor of her nomination.)

Sen. Brian Taniguchi, the judiciary committee chairman, expressed concern that Leonard had never run an entity similar in size and complexity to the state judiciary system. Leonard said her leadership in dissolving the Campbell Estate demonstrates that she can bring disparate parties together to reach consensus.

Sen. Dwight Takamine, the judiciary committee vice chairman, wanted Leonard to explain how her background would inform her vision for the high court. Leonard said her top priority was to improve access to the courts and praised the late Chief Justice William Richardson for his leadership.

Bar Association President Hugh Jones testified about the group’s rating for Leonard and defended the process. A representative of Hawaii Women Lawyers testified in support of Leonard, noting the dearth of women on the bench. Leonard would be the first woman chief justice and the first graduate of the University of Hawaii law school to serve on the court.

The committee heard opposition to Leonard from attorney Eric Seitz and retired judge Marie Milks. Among Leonard’s supporters was Avi Soifer, dean of the UH law school, who said she had been editor of the Law Review in Honolulu the same year President Obama had edited the law review at Harvard.

Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee stopped at 11:25 a.m. for a brief recess, before resuming minutes later. It then ran to about 1:15, before recessing till 3 p.m, when the panel reconvened to continue considering her nomination. The final round of testimony went from 3 till 4:35.

The session ended with a question from Republican Sen. Sam Slom to Leonard about whether she had any doubts or reservations about her ability to perform the job.

The answer: No.

And with that the hearing was over.

Read written testimony on Leonard’s nomination.

The committee is expected to vote on the nomination Thursday, and the full Senate is scheduled to vote on Leonard’s nomination Friday.

Share your thoughts on the Leonard nomination and the hearing process.

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