Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, invoking the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others who were killed by police, is calling on the state court system to do its part in addressing systemic inequities.
Building public trust in the courts, and likewise having a court system that delivers “equal justice for all” were major themes of Recktenwald’s State of the Judiciary speech Wednesday morning. The chief justice also touched on the challenges the judiciary faced in dealing with the pandemic in 2020 as well as the impacts COVID-19 has wrought on the judiciary’s budget.
“Hawaii is far from immune from the racial inequity that spurred this summer’s protests across the country and at home,” Recktenwald said, referencing the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the U.S. after the police killing of Floyd.
Recktenwald noted steps Hawaii has taken to help address some of those inequities including implicit bias training for judges and reforming Hawaii’s bail system.
Act 179 in 2019 allowed detainees to post bail seven days a week, which could help expedite the pre-trial process if an individual is arrested on a Friday afternoon. Proponents of bail reform measures, including the total elimination of cash bail, have said that the measure did not go far enough.
The same law also created the Criminal Justice Research Institute, which Recktenwald hopes can provide the data necessary for lawmakers to direct any policy changes.
In a preliminary report to lawmakers on Jan. 14, the institute found that 63 of 108 detainees released under state Supreme Court orders in 2020 reoffended, most being sent back to jail for misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors.
Hawaii’s court system is also trying to shine a light on racial injustice through a five-part webinar series on topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, data and the criminal justice system, civil rights, implicit bias training and diversity and inclusion.
“We are listening to those who have bravely raised their voices to fight for a more equitable future,” Recktenwald said.
The Judiciary has also been forced to take much of its business online since the pandemic began. The court system has conducted more than 128,000 virtual meetings since June 2020, the chief justice said.
“We are in effect, creating the courts of the future,” Recktenwald said, adding that the state Supreme Court has conducted 17 oral arguments online since the pandemic began.
The judiciary also faces a cloudy financial future. Last year, lawmakers cut the courts’ budget as they scrambled to plug a growing budget deficit brought on by the pandemic.
Update: Recktenwald pleaded with lawmakers to make no cuts this year. The Judiciary’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, totals about $163.9 million in general fund appropriations, up $6.7 million from the current fiscal year.
That’s due to collective bargaining increases and previously approved pay raises, according to a spokeswoman.
The Judiciary would struggle with any further budget reductions.
Recktenwald noted that courts will be expected to deal with a wave of residential evictions once Gov. David Ige’s eviction moratorium is lifted. There has also been a 600% increase in client contacts to the Domestic Violence Action Center.
To drive the point home to legislators, Recktenwald highlighted several programs including the community outreach court, which helps to expedite cases involving homeless individuals; the Girls Court, which works with teenagers in the juvenile system; and the drug court.
The Legislature and the Judiciary have had a rocky relationship in recent years.
In 2017, lawmakers proposed cuts to judges’ pensions, a move seen as retribution for a series of state court rulings that determined the government had not adequately funded the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
And in 2018, lawmakers lambasted the state Supreme Court for killing a constitutional amendment regarding funding for public schools before the ballot measure had a chance to face voters, who ultimately rejected the proposal anyway.
House Speaker Scott Saiki has introduced a bill this year, House Bill 337, that would, among other things, allow the House speaker or Senate President the authority to request an opinion on proposed constitutional amendments from the high court.
After Recktenwald’s speech, Saiki said lawmakers have the “utmost respect” for the chief justice.
“We look forward to working with him and his team throughout the pandemic and going forward,” Saiki said.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell