Eyebrows are still being raised following the announcement late Friday that Hawaii Gov. David Ige nominated his high school classmate and former campaign manager to serve on the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Keith K. Hiraoka, 59, is currently a judge on the 1st Circuit Court, a position he has held since March 2017. Ige nominated Hiraoka for that job, too.

In Wednesday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for example, one letter writer called the Hiraoka nomination “inappropriate” and “simply wrong.” In Monday’s issue, Ige’s Republican opponent, House Minority Leader Andria Tupola, said Hiraoka’s advancement amounts to “quite the promotion.”

“This is very surprising that it happened in such a short period of time,” Tupola said. “They should have really thought about how this is going to play out in public, because I don’t think the timing is good.”

Circuit Court Judge Keith Hiraoka has been nominated to the Intermediate Court of Appeals by his longtime friend, Gov. David Ige. 

Some go further.

Marissa Kerns, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, accuses Ige of “selling judgeships to the highest bidder with political connections to his campaign.”

Kerns argues in a press release this week, “The state Legislature must reject this pay-to-play insider deal.”

She links to the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission to show that Hiraoka — described by Kerns as a “megadonor” — gave $6,000 to Ige’s 2014 campaign for governor.

I don’t think all the carping will amount to much, either for Ige’s re-election chances or Hiraoka’s confirmation by the state Senate.

It’s true that Hiraoka gave money to Ige’s first gubernatorial campaign. He contributed $6,000 (the maximum allowable amount per election) during the first half of 2014.

But campaign finance records do not show Hiraoka giving his old buddy any money after that, all the way through this year’s Aug. 11 primary, the latest records show.

Hiraoka was also in private practice when he made that donation, and he was managing Ige’s campaign.

The state Senate, which must confirm judicial nominations, did not seem to have any problem with Hiraoka when it voted unanimously in March 2017 to put him on the 1st Circuit Court.

The written testimony was unanimously positive as well, with dozens of testifiers (many of them part of the local legal community) using words like “caring,” “honest,” “fair-minded,” “outstanding,” “intelligent,” “astute” and “excellent demeanor” to describe Hiraoka.

The odds of Hiraoka getting a judgeship in 2017 were pretty decent. He applied for four judicial vacancies within a matter of months — three on the 1st Circuit, one on the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

In each case, Hiraoka was selected along with five other applicants from the Judicial Selection Commission. Several of those same candidates applied for some of the other jobs, too.

Once Hiraoka learned that his name was submitted to the governor, he resigned his political position, the administration said in January 2017.

‘Proud To Submit His Name’

This time around, Hiraoka’s name was submitted by the commission to the governor along with five other applicants Sept. 5.

A total of 12 people applied for the appeals court opening, four of them women. Five were government attorneys, four were private attorneys, two (including Hiraoka) were already judges, one was a per diem judge and one was described as “other.”

“Keith was the most qualified applicant and the right fit for this position,” the governor said in a press release. “He has years of experience, legal and analytical skills, and will complement the other judges on the Intermediate Court of Appeals. I’m proud to submit his name to the Senate.”

Governor David Ige gives his first press conference at his office on the 5th floor of the State Capitol. 1 dec. 2014. photo Cory Lum
Gov. David Ige has now nominated Hiraoka to judgeships twice. 

Hiraoka has practiced law in Hawaii since 1983. He is a 1980 graduate of the University of Hawaii Manoa and earned his juris doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley — one of the top law schools anywhere.

Ige interviewed the nominees and said he sought “input and guidance” from former Supreme Court Justice James Duffy and the legal community before making his selection.

“Keith was the most qualified applicant and the right fit for this position.” — Gov. David Ige

It’s important to keep in mind that Ige did not select his friend to be considered for a judgeship. That decision came from the Judicial Selection Commission, which reviews and evaluates all applications for judicial vacancies. It votes by secret ballot to select qualified nominees.

The commission is designed to be balanced. Two of its nine appointees come from the Hawaii State Bar Association, two from the governor, two from the House speaker, two from the Senate president and one from the chief justice.

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi publicly and financially supported Ige’s 2018 Democratic primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Perhaps they’ll want to exact a little revenge come Hiraoka’s confirmation hearing, but if they do it will look as political as — well, as political as appointing your high school buddy and campaign manager to a judgeship.

Of note: The Judicial Selection Commission was established by the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

The ‘Judicial Food Chain’

The commission’s chairwoman, Jackie Young, said of Hiraoka, “He’s certainly well qualified. I can say that about everyone on that list. I think everyone in the legal community would agree.”

The other nominees were David M. Forman, Geoffrey K. S. Komeya, Karen T. Nakasone, John M. Tonaki and Clyde J. Wadsworth.

Honolulu attorney Jeff Portnoy, a former commission member, describes the commission as a “very open, nonpartisan group,” and not a political “old boy” network, as he said has been alleged in the past.

“That doesn’t deter from the fact that ultimately the governor is going to pick from the list,” Portnoy said. “It’s clear that relationships formed by whatever historical situation between members on the list and the governor are definitely going to enter into it in some way or another.”

Portnoy continued: “But I will tell you with Keith, who is certainly qualified to be a trial judge — I’ve dealt with him for decades as an attorney in private practice, both for and against — I have always found him to be first rate professionally and ethically.”

Portnoy called allegations of fast-tracking Hiraoka’s judicial career a red herring.

“We have District Court judges who have been on the bench for less than a year but who show through ability that they can be there,” he said.

Portnoy added that moving from a trial court to an appellate court might be seen by some as “moving up the judicial food chain.” But he said that is is not necessarily a step up, as there are trial judges who have no interest in leaving a fairly dynamic position for one that might be boring by comparison.

“I know some of the others on the list that was sent to the governor, and they would have been good choices,” he said. “But only one’s going to make it.”

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