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David Louie’s nomination to be Hawaii attorney general does not appear to be in trouble, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee is not quite ready to sign off on a top appointment for Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
Fifteen other Cabinet appointees have already dropped the word “interim” from their title after the full Senate confirmed them.
But Hee did not schedule a confirmation hearing in Senate Judiciary and Labor until three months after the governor announced his AG pick. Louie is the last to get a hearing.
Even now Louie will have to wait until Tuesday — April 5, just a month before session ends — at the earliest to learn whether he has majority support in Judiciary, and a few more days after that, if all goes well, to see how he fares in a full Senate confirmation vote.
What’s holding up Louie’s nomination is, as Hee explained at Tuesday’s hearing at the state Capitol, is that the senator has received telephone calls from people who oppose Louie.
Hee did not say who the calls were from. Nor did he explain the nature of the opposition.
But Hee did say his committee was looking into the concerns, and that Louie would have the opportunity to respond to them.
After the hearing, Hee spoke privately with Louie and Louise Ing, president of the Hawaii State Bar Association, which gave Louie a “qualified” rating to be AG.
For those who have followed Hee over the years, especially as Judiciary chair, it’s “classic Clayton” to delay a nomination, as one government attorney who supports Louie muttered in the committee room.
In fact, several governor appointments have been derailed because of Hee’s objections over the years.
This session, Hee single-handedly kept William Aila twisting in the trade winds as Hee raised concerns about Aila’s nomination to be director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
What Hee has this time is not clear. Sen. Sam Slom, the lone Republican on Judiciary, told Civil Beat he had no idea but added that he expected Louie to be confirmed regardless.
Another lawmaker familiar with Louie’s nomination agrees with Slom, but adds, “Clayton still has another week to find something.”
Based on Tuesday’s testimony, no one has publicly come forth with “something.”
There was only one letter of opposition among the written testimony submitted to the Capitol’s website, from a Jeannine Johnson, who wrote, without elaboration, “I believe there are far more qualified attorneys that would serve Hawaii’s residents better in this most trusted position.”
The late testimony that followed was solidly behind Louie, most of it from members of the local legal community, including former Hawaii justices, judges and attorneys general.
Meanwhile, Conference Room 016 was full of so many prominent attorneys — including Louie’s predecessor, Mark Bennett — who showed up to support Louie that, if one totaled the billable hours that might have been charged for their time, the state could pay off its deficit.
Amid all the lawyerly love of Louie, some of the testimony provided insight into how Louie was selected by Abercrombie.
Under sometimes rude questioning from Hee, Bill Kaneko, who led Abercrombie’s transition and directed the hiring process, said Louie’s name was at the top of a short list of four or five candidates. But Louie did not accept the job until a lengthy interview process was completed.
Responding to Sen. Slom, Kaneko said the administration did not offer Louie any “sweeteners” to leave his well-paid job in private practice, and that there was no “litmus test” in terms of where Louie stood on certain issues.
But Hee’s questioning dug deeper. He asked Kaneko exactly how Louie rose above the other candidates — what “makes him the leader of the pack.”
Kaneko’s answers — that Louie was very practical, not an idealist, a good problem-solver — did not satisfy Hee. He pressed for examples, so Kaneko brought up the example of antitrust issues related to college football’s Bowl Championship Series.
Hee still wasn’t satisfied. He then asked Kaneko, “Mayor Wright Housing doesn’t have hot water. Does the attorney general have a roll to play in respect to residences of Hawaii, and is that how this nominee separates himself from others?”
Kaneko mumbled something about such matters being very much in Louie’s “bailiwick,” quickly adding that he was not “privvy” to any conversation Louie may have had with the governor about Mayor Wright Housing.
More questioning of testifiers — lots of questions — gave hints of Hee’s interests concerning Louie.
Attorney Colbert Matsumoto said he believed Louie cared about civil rights and immigration rights, the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment.
Hee asked Matsumoto how Louie might have felt about the eviction of Native Hawaiians from Kahana Valley and the Rice v. Cayetano decision that let non-Hawaiians vote for Office of Hawaiian Affairs candidates. Matsumoto suggested Louie would have been sympathetic to the former issue but did not know where he stood on the latter.
Former Attorney General Robert Marks, perhaps sensing that Hee was probing for Louie’s political leanings, told Hee that the job of AG is “really rarely political.” Marks observed that the attorney general, for example, is the only Cabinet official that the governor can’t fire.
Hee quickly shot back that the governor also cannot fire the chair of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. “I stand corrected,” said Marks.
When Louie himself came under questioning, Hee backed off from the level of questioning he delivered to Marks and Kaneko.
But he continued to focus on politics; Mayor Wright Housing came up again, as did taxing pensions.
Louie responded that his primary job was to provide “his clients” legal advice on issues before the state, such as when he informed the governor and legislators that the Senate bill on taxing pensions would likely be challenged constitutionally. But Louie said political decisions are up to legislators, not the AG’s office.
As for Mayor Wright Housing, Louie told Hee that he could not comment on whether his office was investigating possible civic, administrative or criminal action.
Afterwards, many of Louie’s supporters in the conference room expressed how pleased they were with Louie’s handling of Hee.
Louie did do well.
But Clayton Hee still has another week to find “something” on David Louie.