The debate over whether the Hawaii State Ethics Commission must release the financial disclosure statements of certain state board members is heading to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura last month ruled in favor of Honolulu Civil Beat’s request for a preliminary injunction that would force the commission to release the records immediately.

On Friday, she denied the state Attorney General’s request for a stay pending appeal. The state is expected to instead ask the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus as Civil Beat had proposed.

First Circuit Court Building located at 777 Punchbowl street. 15 dec. 2014. photograph Cory Lum

First Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura decided Friday that the Hawaii Supreme Court should provide guidance on Civil Beat’s financial disclosure lawsuit against the state.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The news outlet’s attorney, Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, said it will likely be late January before the request for the writ is made. He was pleased with the judge’s ruling, saying it should provide for a more expeditious remedy.

It’s unknown what the Supreme Court will do though. The justices could decide that Nishimura’s Nov. 12 ruling should stand and the records should be released immediately, or they could direct the parties to go through a more formal appeals process that would likely take significantly longer.

Recognizing that once the records are released “the bell cannot be un-rung,” Nishimura told Black and Deputy Attorney General Robyn Chun that asking for a writ of mandamus is not just the most expeditious route, but the most practical in terms of providing instruction to the court.

“We’re all second-guessing at this juncture in terms of how this case stands factually, legally and procedurally and what’s the best recourse,” Nishimura said, noting the newness of the law.

The Legislature in April unanimously passed a bill that added 15 boards to the list of those whose members must publicly disclose their financial interests.

The Ethics Commission has advocated for this type of legislation for years, believing the public’s help is necessary to identify potential conflicts of interest among powerful state board members, including the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, Public Utilities Commission and Hawaii Community Development Authority.

The law took effect July 8 without the signature of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who expressed concerns over protecting the privacy of people who had joined the boards with an understanding that their financial disclosure statements would remain confidential.

By late July, 26 members across 10 state boards had quit since the bill was passed. The governor’s office has steadily appointed new members to fill those seats.

The Ethics Commission is somewhat torn. The five volunteer commissioners have chosen to follow the Attorney General’s advice and not disclose the financial disclosure statements of current board members who filed before the law took effect.

The commission’s executive director, Les Kondo, believes those records should be disclosed. 

“It is an important issue and it cannot be taken lightly … because it does potentially have impact on other boards and commissions,” Nishimura said. “It does have significant public import.”

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