Three of Hawaii’s next four new judges will be men, raising questions about equality between men and women in the court system.

An unusual spate of judicial vacancies this year gave Hawaii Gov. David Ige the opportunity to name new state judges in just a few week’s time.

Twenty-one men were nominated for the governor’s consideration compared to just three women.

The disparity is due in part to simple numbers: There are nearly twice as many active male lawyers in the state than female, and many more men applied for the new vacancies than women.

But the disparity raises questions about gender balance in the courts.

Department of Health Judge Nakasone District Court. 2 feb 2017
First Circuit Court Judge Karen Nakasone was one of only three female attorneys applying for current judicial vacancies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Feb. 3, Ige made his first pick, and it was for a male candidate: He appointed 1st Circuit Chief Judge Derrick Chan to the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

If approved by the Hawaii State Senate, Chan, 61, will fill the seat of former Associate Judge Daniel Foley, who retired in December.

Then, on Friday, Ige named the other three appointees:

  • Keith Hiraoka, 58, attorney at Roeca Luria Hiraoka, to the 1st Circuit Court to fill the vacancy created by the retirement last year of former Circuit Judge Karen S. S. Ahn;
  • Attorney Todd Eddins, 52, to the 1st Circuit Court to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of former Circuit Judge Richard Perkins in June; and
  • Family Court Judge Catherine Remigio, 51, to the 1st Circuit Court to fill the vacancy created by the August retirement of former Circuit Judge Steven Alm.

All four appointments, if confirmed, will contribute to the gender gap in the judiciary. Statewide, there is a 2-to-1 ratio of male judges to female judges.

The Judicial Selection Commission made its recommendations based on an applicant pool that was heavily male:

  • Five men and one woman were on the list to replace Alm. Only four women applied compared with 25 men.
  • Five men and one woman were on the list to replace Ahn. The nominees came from the same pool of applicants for Alm’s job.
  • Six men and no women were on the list to replace Perkins. Just six women applied for the position, compared with 31 men.
  • Eight women and eight men applied for Foley’s job. But only one woman was on the list if six candidates that went to the governor: 1st Circuit Court Judge Karen Nakasone.

Update: Hiraoka, the governor’s former campaign chair, made all four lists of nominees. Eddins made the cut three times, as did two other men, attorney Jeffrey Hawk and 1st Circuit District Court Judge Paul Wong.

Gov. Ige has appointed 1st Circuit Chief Judge Derrick Chan to the Intermediate Court of Appeals. Chan’s name was selected from a list that was mostly male. Gov. David Ige

James Kawachika, chairman of the Judicial Selection Commission, said the commission tries to encourage women to apply. The outreach includes to Hawaii Women Lawyers, a nonprofit aimed at “improving the lives and careers of women attorneys.”

“We’d like to see more women apply, but in the most recent nominee lists that we created for the three 1st Circuit positions, there were a total of only six women that applied for one position and a total of four for the other two,” he said.

Kawachika speculated that more women apply for District Court positions than Circuit Court positions, as the requirement for practicing law is only five years as compared with 10 years.

“So, I don’t know if that accounts,” he said.

The commission has nine members and votes on all judicial nominations by secret ballot.

There are currently three women on the commission, whose members are selected by the governor (two positions), Senate president (two), House speaker (two), the Hawaii State Bar Association (two) and the chief justice (one).

The Hawaii State Bar Association shows far more male attorneys in the state than female. HSBA

Shan Wirt, president of Hawaii Women Lawyers, said her group would continue to strive to achieve parity on the judicial nomination lists as well as “to develop and offer various opportunities to our members, including mentorship programs and presentations from the Judicial Selection Commission.”

According to the bar, there are 2,130 active male attorneys statewide and 1,182 females.

The number of lawyers working in government is nearly even when it comes to gender. But there are about twice as many male judges (61) as female ones (31).

In a press release announcing three of his judicial nominees, the governor acknowledged the importance of gender balance in the courts.

The Judiciary must accurately reflect our community, and I want to encourage more women to apply for these positions. More will be open shortly,” he said Ige. “I am seeking the help of several professional women’s organizations to recruit talented women to the bench.”

He added, “Ultimately, the judicial branch will better serve the people of this state when it truly mirrors our diversity.”

Of note: In October 2015, the governor appointed District Court Judge Shirley Kawamura to the 1st Circuit Court on Oahu.

Compared to other states, Hawaii appears to fare better when it comes to representation.

In his 2017 State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald referenced an American Constitution Society 2016 study, in which he said independent researchers ranked Hawaii first in the nation for combined gender and race and ethnicity representation.

The same study, he said, found that Hawaii was among the top 10 most “gender representative” judiciaries in the nation.

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