The board of directors of the Hawaii State Bar Association has determined that Katherine Leonard is not qualified to lead the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Leonard, a state appellate court judge, was Gov. Linda Lingle‘s surprise choice to lead the state Supreme Court as its chief justice, replacing Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who will retire Sept. 4 because justices must leave the bench at age 70. Moon is in charge of a state judiciary that employees about 1,800.

Leonard’s detractors say she lacks adequate administrative experience. She has less than three years experience on the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Lingle called the bar’s negative rating “outrageous.”

“The State Bar Association’s review process was unfair, flawed, and conducted under a veil of secrecy, with no accountability to the public. The HSBA has refused to state its reasons for its ratings,” Lingle said in a statement.

The bar association’s judgement came in the board’s testimony to the state Senate Judiciary Committee, due Monday afternoon. Leonard’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings begin Tuesday. If confirmed, she would be the state’s first female chief justice and first graduate of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law.

Some members of the legal community were shocked by the board’s decision.

“I’m very surprised. I just never thought that would happen,” said Jeffrey Portnoy, former bar association president. “I don’t sit on the board anymore but I certainly know how hard they work to evaluate the nominee. I know they meet with the nominee and solicit comments from the bar.”

“I’m sure now there will be a full court press on either side,” he said, noting that in the past, when the bar association board has voted against other controversial Supreme Court nominees, the board has been lobbied to change its opinion.

It was generally believed that Associate Justice Mark Recktenwald was a shoo-in for the job, making the nomination of Leonard, who is 50, a surprise.

Lingle described Leonard as “a person of great character and strong intellect, who possesses effective writing skills and a true commitment to the rule of law.” Prior to serving on the state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, she was a partner with the law office of Carlsmith Ball.

Portnoy said it’s possible that the Senate would confirm Leonard’s appointment despite the decision. But in the past, the board’s judgements on nominees have been taken seriously by legislators.

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