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A press release this week from the Hawaii House of Representatives struck me as kind of odd.
It reported that House Speaker Scott Saiki and other House leaders interviewed Circuit Court Judge Keith Hiraoka, who is Gov. David Ige’s nominee for the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.
The reason that seems odd is that it is the Hawaii Senate, and not the House, that considers and confirms judicial nominations. The press release acknowledged as much, calling the interview “unprecedented.”
Saiki said in a statement, “Although the Senate confirms judges, the House shares an interest in ensuring that judicial nominations are fully vetted.”
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti added, “We know how important it is to select the right person to the Intermediate Court of Appeals because appellate judges play such a critical role in interpreting the laws crafted by the Legislature in accordance with principles outlined in the Hawaii State Constitution.”
One legislative insider told me the House interview was “highly unusual.” One of my colleagues said, “It’s fishy. Especially two weeks before the election.”
Could legislative leaders like Saiki and Belatti, who backed Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Ige during the Democratic primary in August, be seeking payback?
Hiraoka, after all, was a high school friend of Ige’s and also his 2014 campaign manager. Just last year the governor put Hiraoka on the Circuit Court, albeit with full Senate approval.
Could the House be trying to influence the decision by the Senate, which will hear and vote on Hiraoka’s appeals court nomination in special session Wednesday?
On the same day, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald’s appointment of Summer Kupau-Odo to the District Court of the First Circuit.
And beyond that, are we in for four more contentious years between the governor and the Legislature — even though practically everyone in the building is a Democrat?
In a phone interview Thursday, Saiki called reports of the meeting being highly unusual “not accurate” and assured me that there is nothing politically untoward going on. In fact, he called Hiraoka “highly qualified” for the appellate court.
The speaker said that, while the meeting with Hiraoka was the first of its kind, previous judicial nominees have paid one-on-one courtesy calls with House lawmakers.
Wednesday’s meeting was described by the House press release this way: “House leaders and Judge Hiraoka engaged in an informative and wide-ranging discussion about judicial experience and temperament, judicial philosophy, and separation of powers between the three branches of government.”
In addition to Saiki and Belatti, others in the discussion were Vice Speaker Mark Nakashima, Majority Floor Leader Dee Morikawa and Majority Whips Henry Aquino, Tom Brower, Aaron Ling Johanson and Justin Woodson.
The House did not inform the Senate of the meeting, although it released the press release immediately afterward. Saiki said there are no plans “at this point” for the House to submit testimony on Hiraoka’s nomination, but in the press release Saiki is quoted as saying representatives “may offer our input to the Senate before they debate his confirmation.”
Senate Judiciary Vice Chair Karl Rhoads said he had heard rumors that a House interview might happen. Asked if he had any concerns, he told me, “For the confirmation part, the House does not get to vote, and nobody from the House has lobbied me for or against.”
“The House has a strong interest in nominations and who is being appointed to these kinds of posts.” — Speaker Scott Saiki
Rhoads, who formerly chaired the House Judiciary and Labor Committee, added, “It’s a little unusual in this context for the House to be involved so close to the confirmation. But it certainly is not unusual for the House to pay attention to what is going on in Senate Judiciary.”
Rhoads also pointed out that the House, like the Senate, must sign off on the Judiciary budget.
What does the governor think about the House meeting?
“Judge Hiraoka is a man of integrity, and I’m pleased that he is meeting with legislators and others to gain an understanding of the issues that are important to them, answer their questions and express his views,” Ige said through a spokeswoman.
Rhoads said Hiraoka’s nomination is not in trouble and that there will be no delay in the vote set for Wednesday.
But the House’s intervention shows that that chamber is, as Saiki explained to me, “open to doing things differently. That’s because the House has a strong interest in nominations and who is being appointed to these kinds of posts. We have to work with these nominees just as much as the Senate.”
Will the House be looking to do more such interviews in the future?
“It’s possible,” he said.
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