In a packed fifth floor chamber at the state Capitol Monday — full of media, supporters and opponents of civil unions — Gov. Linda Lingle said she needed more time to weigh her decision on House Bill 444.

It was no surprise that Lingle wants until July 6, the deadline, to make her announcement.

What was a surprise was that the news had to fight for headline space and airtime with the death of a beloved leader, former Hawaii State Supreme Court Chief Justice William S. Richardson, after whom the law school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is named.

Fittingly, in addressing civil unions the Republican leader is confronting the very things that Richardson, a former lieutenant governor and leader of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, stood for — justice, the law and politics.

At Monday’s press conference, Lingle was well aware of the significance of her decision.

“We all have to live together whichever way this goes,” she said. “We are one ohana. You may disagree, but you still live on an island together.”

Here’s a look at what’s on the governor’s mind, and some clues as to what comes next:

What Is Lingle Thinking?

The governor has met with supporters and opponents of the bill because she doesn’t want the media’s filter. She has asked a lot of questions of the two groups, and the answers she is getting keep her going “back and forth” in her views. As of Monday she had planned no further meetings.

“I have not made up my mind yet,” she said. “I am still considering every point of view.” She also said: “I just need more time.”

Lingle says she knows of no other legislation she has had to consider that will have as great an impact on both sides of the issue. After 30 years in public office, she says sometimes her personal views on issues have “carried the day,” but sometimes not.

Though it is “perhaps” the most difficult decision in her career, civil unions “doesn’t alter my daily activity, obligations and responsibilities… But it is something I think about every day. The fact that you media people talk so much about this is really a reflection of how much this community cares about this on both sides. You can’t expect me to be any different.”

What Is Lingle Hearing?

Lingle was apparently following the civil unions matter while traveling in China and Japan. But she has not yet looked at the June 4 letter from the Hawaii Business Roundtable urging her to veto HB 444, nor at “counter” letters from some roundtable members who feel differently.

The governor has not discussed the “defective date” of Jan. 1, 2010, in the bill with with Attorney General Mark Bennett, something raised by the roundtable but previously determined to not really be an issue by the AG’s office.

Lingle is also aware of the 19,888 letters, emails and faxes that have come in, as well as a flood of phone calls — all told, some 85 percent in opposition to HB 444. Lingle’s staff says many of the letters are form letters, and a lot of the callers do not leave names.

Lingle is quite familiar with such mass onslaughts and will take that into consideration. But she also says public opinion is important.

Ultimately, the governor’s top criteria when considering vetoing any legislation are whether a bill is poor public policy, whether it will have a negative impact on the state’s economy, and whether it is unconstitutional or will “violate the law some way.” Bottom line: making a decision that is “best” for Hawaii.

How Will Democrats Respond To A Veto?

Rep. Blake Oshiro, the House majority leader and the chief sponsor of HB 444, says the 31-20 vote to pass the bill “is pretty firm” and likely won’t change. That’s three votes shy of the two-thirds needed for override.

“So at this point I don’t anticipate further action on that, but things could change in the next few weeks,” he said.

House Speaker Calvin Say says a special session to override other vetoed legislation is still possible, and it is not inconceivable for HB 444 to be taken up. If the veto cannot be overridden, its viability next session depends on the makeup in the House and Senate chambers.

“The stars were aligned this past two years,” he said, suggesting that may not be the case come 2011.

House Democrats will caucus Tuesday, followed by a leadership meeting.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, meanwhile, said the 18-7 vote in her chamber on civil unions remains veto-proof. But if the House can’t come up with the numbers, the Senate won’t bother.

“I don’t see us coming back for just one bill, but some of the other bills on the governor’s list had a lot of support, 25-0 or 23-2,” she said. “But you never predict how a senator is going to feel.”

During session, by the way, 11 of Lingle’s 15 vetoes were overridden.

What’s Next?”

Lingle says politics will not influence her decision on civil unions, but it’s difficult to ignore the pressure to do so.

It is the race for governor where the civil unions issue may have the most influence. Say noted that Republican James “Duke” Aiona is strongly against HB 444, Democrat Neil Abercrombie supports it, and Democrat Mufi Hannemann won’t commit.

Say, Oshiro and Hanabusa, however, believe it is unlikely that HB 444 will have a significant impact on other political races this year. But the issue could play a role in certain districts, including Oshiro’s. He is expected to face Honolulu Councilman Gary Okino, a Democrat and civil unions opponent.

Hanabusa, herself a candidate for Congress this year, said Lingle wants to help Aiona, her lieutenant governor, but suggests that Lingle may let civil unions become law without her signature as Gov. John Burns, a devout Catholic, did with Hawaii’s abortion law 40 years ago.

By coincidence, the late William Richardson was chair of the Democratic party when Burns was elected governor, served as Burns’ first lieutenant governor, and was named to the Supreme Court by Burns.

Finally, there is the matter of Perry V. Schwarzenegger, the landmark case challenging California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Say and Oshiro agreed that if it makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it will likely affect marriage rights in Hawaii regardless of what happens to civil unions.

Meanwhile, if HB 444 does not become law, supporters like Equality Hawaii say there will be a lawsuit filed locally.

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