First Circuit Judge Edwin Nacino on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Gov. David Ige’s interim appointment of Tom Gorak to the state Public Utilities Commission.

At the crux of the case was a dispute over when a vacancy actually occurs on the commission. The judge determined it happens when a member’s term ends.

“The interim appointments authority is part of Hawaii’s constitution,” Attorney General Doug Chin said in a statement. “Today’s ruling affirms Governor Ige’s exercise of that authority.”

Governor David Ige announces his appointment to the Public Utility Commission, Thomas Gorak. 29 june 2016
Gov. David Ige, right, announced his appointment of Tom Gorak to the Public Utilities Commission on June 29, a day before Commissioner Mike Champley’s term was set to end. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Former PUC Chair Mina Morita filed the lawsuit July 15, the same day the commission decided to reject the proposed $4.3 billion sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to Florida-based NextEra Energy.

She questioned Ige’s June 29 decision to replace Commissioner Mike Champley, whose term was set to end June 30.

The Hawaii Constitution gives the governor the power to make interim appointments to fill board vacancies when the Senate is not in session.

But state law says the commissioner “shall hold office until the member’s successor is appointed and qualified.” 

Morita said “qualified” meant confirmed by the Senate, but state attorneys argued that it means having the proper credentials or background to serve in the position.

Morita, represented by former Attorney General Mark Bennett, argued that Champley had a right to remain in office until Gorak was confirmed by the Senate.

But Deputy Attorney General John Molay convinced the judge that a vacancy was created when the term ended, thereby giving Ige the power to appoint Gorak.

Gorak’s interim appointment lasts until the next legislative session ends in May, unless he is confirmed for a full-term appointment by the Senate before then, the AG’s office said.

The attorneys argued the case before the judge Thursday.

Read past Civil Beat coverage here.

Read the court order below.

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