Judges and lawyers came out in strong opposition this week to legislation that would let Hawaii voters elect their state attorney general and judges instead of the current appointment process.

Nonetheless, the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, chaired by Gil Keith-Agaran, passed Senate Bill 2418 on Wednesday, with only Sen. Laura Thielen voting against it. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment to provide that the attorney general be elected as a nonpartisan official rather than appointed by the governor.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin said in his testimony that his office has been filled by appointment for more than 150 years and should continue that way.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, seen here at a January hearing, opposes a bill to elect the attorney general instead of having the governor appoint someone to the position.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, seen here at a January hearing, opposes a bill to elect the attorney general instead of having the governor appoint someone to the position.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Electing the attorney general almost certainly would subject the attorney general to external influences substantially greater than any attorneys general has had to contend with to date,” he said.

Chin said the current system gives the Attorney General a degree of autonomy because he cannot simply be removed by the governor; removal requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

“An election every four years is highly likely to disrupt the work of the office, and distract the attorney general and the deputies from devoting their ‘entire time and attention’ to performing the duties and responsibilities assigned them by the State Constitution and statutes,” he said.

The bill was only referred to the Judiciary and Labor Committee, so its next hurdle is a vote by the full Senate. From there, it crosses over to the House for its consideration.

The committee deferred until March 2 a bill that proposes a constitutional amendment to require judges to be elected to six-year terms.

“This bill would result in far-reaching ramifications not only to the judicial branch of this state, but to Hawaii’s government as a whole,” Rodney Maile, administrative director of the courts, said in his testimony.

“From the time of Hawaii’s Constitution of 1852 through the present day, our judges have never been selected through an electoral process,” he said. “The current merit-based system, which has been in place since 1978, has served this state well by providing for the selection and retention of qualified judges, while ensuring that judges can exercise independent judgment in deciding cases.”

The committee deferred indefinitely a bill that proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the governor to appoint a person from the same political party as a running mate for lieutenant governor in the general election instead of the current system of electing the LG.

“Changing the method of election for the lieutenant governor can help to support a more unified ticket for governor and lieutenant governor that will result in a more productive and constructive Administration for the State,” Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui said in his testimony supporting the measure.

Read past Civil Beat coverage of the issue here.

Read the testimony on the AG and judge bills below.

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