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It’s hard to be any more Catholic than Clare Connors, Hawaii’s 16th attorney general.
Connors is the daughter of a former priest and a former nun. She was raised in the Maryknoll missionary tradition and still attends the same church — St. Anthony’s in Kailua — where she had her First Holy Communion as a child. Even her wedding took place there.
Five priests, all of whom she calls “uncle,” presided over the ceremony. She still goes to church on Sundays.
So it was a daunting task she faced on her first day as Hawaii’s chief law enforcement officer.
A proposal to push back against the Trump administration’s so-called gag rule sought to deter low-income women from accessing birth control and abortion services from federally funded clinics, such as Planned Parenthood.
“That was the first time I had ever come out on an abortion issue,” Connors says. “I’ve never wavered in my fundamental belief that we have to have reproductive freedom. Ruth Bader Ginsberg said it better than any of us, and I don’t need to say it any differently.”
Connors decided it was time to sue. She joined 20 other attorneys general from around the country in a lawsuit that was filed in March in conjunction with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and American Medical Association.
They argued that the administration’s new rules — in addition to targeting some of the country’s most vulnerable populations — were illegally implemented and unconstitutional.
She knew her decision might upset some within her parish, but she always felt her faith pointed her in the direction of justice and equality. To her, there was no moral conflict. It made perfect sense that she would stand up for women’s rights.
“It was the right thing to do,” Connors said. “We’re going to join this action, we’re going to take this position and I’m still going to go to church on Sunday and we’ll see what happens.”
Since then, Connors has continued her fight against President Donald Trump and the decisions he and his administration make that she believes hurt the people of Hawaii, whether they’re asylum seekers escaping persecution in their home countries, food stamp recipients fearful of losing the only benefit that keeps them from going hungry or residents whose health care comes from the Affordable Care Act.
She’s filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors in response to a national epidemic that’s claimed thousands of lives, including in Hawaii.
She’s urged Congress to block Trump’s cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and pressed for stricter regulations on guns and ammunition.
In her first six months, she’s repeatedly stuck up for women’s access to abortion services and fought to defend the LGBTQ+ community.
Already Connors has found herself embroiled in some of the state’s most salient legal battles, from pushing for the ouster of Honolulu’s top elected prosecutor to navigating the legal and cultural quandaries of a Native Hawaiian activist movement on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
The question is where will she go from here.
“Clare Connors is a very intelligent and talented attorney who’s not afraid to take on controversy,” said Doug Chin, who was Hawaii’s attorney general and lieutenant governor as well as an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 2018. “I think the state is very lucky to have her as the attorney general.”
Connors is a graduate of Punahou School who went to Yale for undergrad and then Harvard for law school.
She worked in New York for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s pre-9/11 parks department and in 2001 was selected for the U.S. Justice Department’s Honors Program under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
In 2002, she moved to Hawaii to clerk for U.S. District Court Judge David Ezra, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. After that she worked as a federal prosecutor, in Washington, D.C., Virginia and then in Hawaii. One of her early supervisors on the islands was Mark Recktenwald, who now serves as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.
As a prosecutor, Connors focused heavily on white collar crime, but also took on major cases involving drugs and robbery.
Early in her career Connors participated in the investigation into KPMG LLC, a major accounting firm at the center of what would become one of the largest criminal tax shelter conspiracies in U.S. history.
In Hawaii, she convicted tax defiers and mortgage fraudsters. Her first trial involved five defendants who for nearly 20 years promoted and sold a tax evasion scheme across the country that resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue for the government.
Connors left the U.S. Attorney’s Office after eight years to work in private practice at Davis Levin Livingston, where she became a partner and litigated high profile civil cases.
Although she never took a case to jury trial, she did secure a number of major settlements for her clients, including a multi-million dollar victory for the family of a 28-year-old New York City doctor who disappeared while on a scuba diving excursion in Hawaii.
In 2015, President Barack Obama nominated Connors to replace U.S. District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway, who was retiring. Connors had the support of both U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, who each testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of her nomination.
Schatz, in particular, played up Connors’ bonafides during her confirmation hearing, calling her “an outstanding candidate.”
“As you can see from her resume she has cut an impressive path,” Schatz said. “In each position she has held she has distinguished herself as a sharp legal mind, a skilled writer and thinker and a compassionate person.”
Both judges Ezra and Recktenwald submitted letters of recommendation on Connors’ behalf, saying, among other things, that she displayed a “lack of bias,” had “highly ethical character” and, if confirmed, “would make anyone feel respected and comfortable in her courtroom.”
“We would be fortunate to have someone with Ms. Connors’ capabilities and humanity on the federal bench,” Ezra wrote.
Connors would never have the opportunity.
Although the Judiciary Committee advanced her nomination it stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, which, after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, wanted to hold off on approving new judges until Obama was out of office.
“At that point I felt that I had done everything I could possibly do,” Connors said. “I made it out of the committee without much of a problem and then just hung there.”
Connors continued working in private practice until someone in Gov. David Ige’s orbit reached out to see if she would be interested in being the state’s attorney general.
She said she was surprised and had no idea how her name landed on the governor’s desk. If she took the job she’d be leaving behind a lucrative career practice, one that, according to her 2019 financial disclosure, paid her “at least $1 million or more.”
On Jan. 3, when Ige announced her nomination as his attorney general, he had a handful of words for her before introducing her to the press: “Your life is about to change.”
Connors is still coming to terms with a career in the public eye. She’s always considered herself a low-key person despite her accomplishments.
She understands that every decision she makes — especially when it involves Trump — will be viewed through a political prism. She tries to set that aside, however, when determining her best course of action, even if it requires quick reaction.
“These decisions have a lot of political ramifications and I’m still getting comfortable with that,” Connors said. “As the issues come at us I have to get comfortable real fast with having a public pronouncement on where our department stands on something, but it also has to be thoughtful.”
Connors made her biggest splash as attorney general almost immediately after walking through the door, and it had nothing to do with Donald Trump.
On Feb. 12, she filed a petition with the Hawaii Supreme Court to have Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro suspended. If Connors is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the state, Kaneshiro — who is elected — would not be far behind.
Connors wanted Kaneshiro out of office after he was named the target of a U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation.
Although Kaneshiro had yet to be charged, Connors worried that simply allowing him to work as a prosecutor presented too many conflicts of interest, especially considering that the DOJ investigation involved allegations of rampant abuses of police and prosecutorial power.
Honolulu’s former police chief, Louis Kealoha, had already been indicted as had his wife, Katherine, a city prosecutor who was one of Kaneshiro’s top deputies.
They were accused of framing a family member, but Katherine Kealoha also faced a barrage of other charges related to allegations she and her brother were running a prescription drug ring and manipulating the judicial system to avoid detection. Connors’ petition was admittedly extraordinary –ousting an elected prosecutor had never been done before in Hawaii’s courts.
The justices, however, never had to act because Kaneshiro voluntarily stepped aside — with pay — while federal investigators continued their criminal probe. That case is still ongoing and Kaneshiro is still on paid leave.
Connors said the decision to go after Kaneshiro was an obvious one. The fact that he refused to relinquish control bothered her even before she was named attorney general. As long as he was under criminal investigation, the cases coming out of his office would be compromised.
It also stymied cooperation between law enforcement agencies. Connors said there were many people who didn’t feel comfortable sharing information with Kaneshiro. Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard was just one person who voiced those concerns.
“For me this wasn’t political or a matter of optics,” Connors said. “We needed to have him removed so that there was no conflict.”
The conviction earlier this year of Louis and Katherine Kealoha on conspiracy and obstruction charges only heightened Connors’ resolve. In addition to the Kealohas, four other Honolulu police officers were found guilty or pleaded guilty to committing criminal acts.
The DOJ, meanwhile, is continuing its investigation into Kaneshiro and other public officials, including at least one in Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration.
Connors says the federal government shouldn’t be the only agency fighting public corruption in the Aloha State. She too wants to crack down on bad actors, and in particular, those who take advantage of their positions of power.
She says her office has already initiated a number of investigations into potential public corruption. She also pointed to the refiling of charges against Laara Allbrett, a former charter school principal who was accused of funneling education dollars to her daughter and a psychic healer on Kauai.
As the DOJ continues to probe Hawaii government for illicit activity, Connors said more opportunities could arise for her office to investigate and prosecute conduct that might not be punishable through the federal system.
“The feds can’t do everything,” Connors said. “There’s just so much happening in this town that it’s important to have not just a strong federal presence, but a strong department of the attorney general. We have the capacity. We can do this, and we should.”
There aren’t many people who have a negative view of Connors, at least that they’ll share publicly. Even those individuals who dislike her admit she’s both talented and accomplished.
“We were hard pressed to find anybody to say a bad word about Clare,” said Andy Winer, who was U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s chief of staff when Connors was being vetted for a federal judgeship.
“She was an extraordinary candidate and when we did our due diligence the feedback that we got on her was universally positive from colleagues, members of the bench and the lawyers who were on the opposing side.”
Loretta Sheehan is a friend and former colleague of Connors who used to work with her in the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well as in private practice at David Levin Livingston.
Sheehan is currently the chair of the Honolulu Police Commission. When Sheehan was first appointed to the commission in 2016, Louis Kealoha was police chief and under federal criminal investigation.
Sheehan said Connors was an understanding ear who she could talk to about the Kealoha situation. Sometimes she’d unload, sometimes explode — Connors encouraged her friend to persevere.
“She kept reminding me of the value of public service over personal comfort,” Sheehan said. “She would say, ‘We’re counting on you. Everyone is counting on you.’ She always told me to have faith.”
Connors’ work ethic is what makes her so successful, Sheehan said, but at times it can also be her undoing.
“Clare puts the rest of us to shame,” Sheehan said. “She’s just extremely mission-oriented.”
Sheehan remembers Connors wanting to spend days painstakingly crafting emails that should only take a few minutes.
When Connors was seven months pregnant, she went to the Federal Detention Center to interview inmates about drug smuggling and violence.
On one occasion, while prepping for litigation, Connors pushed herself so hard and with such little sleep that she had to go to the emergency room.
“Clare is a brilliant leader and she has great ideas,” Sheehan said. “She needs to be supported. The attorney general’s office is a natural place for her given her desire to serve and to serve the greater good.”
With Ige a lame duck in his second term as governor, there are many who wonder what might be next for Connors. Will she be reappointed or will she run for office? Is there another judicial nomination in her future or does she return to private practice?
Judge David Ezra, who’s been assigned to West Texas to help with the heavy federal caseload there, says Connors was one of his best law clerks, and someone who has the skills to set her own course.
“I don’t think there’s anything she couldn’t do,” he said. “She has an extremely broad portfolio.”
When Connors is presented with the question about what’s next for her, she notes that she’s one of only a handful of appointed attorneys general who don’t have to worry about appeasing a political base because she doesn’t have to worry about getting re-elected or aiming for higher office.
She also says she hasn’t given much thought to the future — at least in terms of what it might mean for her career — although the answer invariably brings her back to her religion.
“I don’t have a clear path based on some predetermined notion of where I should go, but I think it’s clear for me that I will be willing to answer the call,” she said. “That’s part of the Catholic faith. When you’re called you answer it.”
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