Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is expected to nominate former Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Steven Levinson to the Honolulu Police Commission.

“The mayor has asked me to do that, and I have agreed,” Levinson said Monday. “This is kind of exciting to me. I certainly wasn’t expecting it.”

UPDATE: Caldwell spokesman Andrew Pereira said in an email late Monday that the mayor plans to announce Levinson’s appointment on Tuesday. Levinson will be appointed to fill the seat of Police Commission Chairman Ron Taketa, whose term has expired.

Levinson’s appointment requires City Council approval, and Pereira pointed out that the earliest Levinson could be confirmed would be December. Taketa would continue to serve until Levinson is confirmed, he said, adding that it is the commission that picks a new chairman, not the mayor.

Levinson’s term would be up Dec. 31, 2020.

Tambry Young and Suzanne King with Justice Steven Levinson after the Hawaii House of Representatives passed civil unions legislation in 2010.
Tambry Young and Suzanne King with Justice Steven Levinson after the Hawaii House of Representatives passed civil unions legislation in 2010. Flickr: Loren Javier

Levinson served on the state’s high court from 1992 to 2008. He worked in private practice until then-Gov. John Waihee appointed him to a Circuit Court judgeship in 1989.

Levinson is perhaps best known for a 1993 opinion in Baehr V. Lewin, in which he said the state had to demonstrate a “compelling” interest if it wanted to deny marriage licenses to three same-sex couples.

The ruling was instrumental in the same-sex marriage movement, which culminated in its legalization by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

Levinson served on the board of directors of Equality Hawaii, which played a leading role in securing same-sex marriage in Hawaii in 2013.

There are seven members on the Police Commission. In June, Caldwell appointed Loretta Sheehan, a former prosecutor.

Sheehan’s nomination was hailed by some as a breath of fresh air, given that trust in the commission was weakened in the wake of reports of officer misconduct. Police Chief Louis Kealoha is also the subject of a federal investigation.

The commission appoints and may remove the chief, reviews rules and regulations for the administration of the Honolulu Police Department, reviews HPD’s annual budget and “receives, considers, and investigates charges brought by the public against the conduct of the department or any of its members and submits a written report of its findings” to the chief, according to the commission’s website.

A Political Issue

Caldwell is running for re-election, and his opponent, Charles Djou, has accused the mayor of lacking leadership when it comes to  law enforcement. Djou said Kealoha should step down as chief until his legal troubles are resolved.

Caldwell has responded by saying that it is up to the commission to decide Kealoha’s fate, and noted that Honolulu is one of the safest cities in the United States.

Taketa’s term expired 10 months ago, and Caldwell had not reappointed or replaced him.

Taketa has refused to acknowledge that Kealoha was under federal investigation despite numerous media reports.

Levinson has a background in criminal defense work as a private practice attorney and is well versed in law enforcement. While familiar with the Police Commission and its work, he said he still had “a lot to learn.”

“But I think the Police Commission can serve quite an important, vital role in oversight and, goodness know, I have got the time and the interest,” he added. “I think I have something to contribute.”

Levinson declined to comment on recent developments involving the commission. But he did say that, as “a voter and a citizen,” he supports Charter Amendment Question No. 1 regarding the commission.

The amendment would give the commission greater authority to suspend or dismiss the chief of police and provide it additional powers to investigate complaints. The chief would also be required to submit in writing an explanation of any disagreement with the commission.

Levinson called the amendment a “step in the right direction” and said it would “be productive” for the commission to have subpoena power.

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