The fate of Hawaii’s legislative districts is in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments from a group of residents wanting to strike down redrawn maps and state attorneys defending the redistricting process during the court’s first in-person hearing since the start of the pandemic.

The legal challenge comes after the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission in January wrapped up its work redrawing legislative districts based on new population estimates from the 2020 U.S. Census.

The residents — from Oahu, Maui and the Big Island — allege that the commission violated the Hawaii Constitution and state laws because the new district maps do not neatly fit House districts into Senate districts. There’s also an issue of some legislative districts crossing boundaries for Hawaii’s congressional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the state’s attorneys argue that those requirements the residents based their lawsuit on are not requirements at all, but rather guidelines.

The justices took the case under advisement Tuesday, meaning they’ll deliberate privately before issuing a ruling at a later date.

Hawaii State Supreme Court Chief Justice Recktenwald listens to oral arguments regarding a reapportionment case.
Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald presided over the court’s first in-person hearing since the start of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Hawaii Supreme Court has livestreamed all of its oral arguments since 2020. That will continue, even though the hearings will be held in-person. The courtroom at Aliiolani Hale was outfitted with wall cameras to capture video for YouTube, and seats were spread out to allow for social distancing.

Even the justices were spread apart. Associate Justices Paula Nakayama and Sabrina McKenna flanked Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald on the bench, while Associate Justices Michael Wilson and Todd Eddins took seats at desks on the courtroom floor.

The justices appeared split on whether the commission should be required to strictly adhere to guidelines laid out in the constitution.

The Constitution outlines a handful of criteria for reapportionment:

1. No district shall extend beyond the boundaries of any basic island unit.
2. No district shall be so drawn as to unduly favor a person or political faction.
3. Except in the case of districts encompassing more than one island, districts shall be contiguous.
4. Insofar as practicable, districts shall be compact.
5. Where possible, district lines shall follow permanent and easily recognized features, such as streets, streams and clear geographical features, and, when practicable, shall coincide with census tract boundaries.
6. Where practicable, representative districts shall be wholly included within senatorial districts.
7. Not more than four members shall be elected from any district.
8. Where practicable, submergence of an area in a larger district wherein substantially different socio-economic interests predominate shall be avoided.

Nakayama in particular did not appear convinced that those guidelines are mandatory.

“A lot of the criteria are not mandatory,” Nakayama said, adding that the constitution says the commission should follow those guidelines “where practicable.”

The commissioners have said in meetings that adhering to all the guidelines was not always practicable. Residents suing the commission were not always satisfied with their explanation.

Recktenwald and McKenna pressed the commission’s lawyer, Deputy Attorney General Lauren Chun, to explain why following all the criteria was not practicable, or whether the commission even considered those criteria. Chun said the law gives commissioners discretion to weigh the constitution’s guidelines.

“They do have to consider it,” Chun said, citing evidence where commissioners simply said they did.

In a separate part of the hearing, Eddins asked Mateo Caballero, who represents the residents suing the commission, if the state’s explanation is sufficient.

Attorney Mateo Caballero representing reapportionment petitioners gives his oral arguments at the Hawaii State Supreme Court.
Attorney Mateo Caballero argued that the commission should be required to follow guidelines in the constitution. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“That would essentially make it where all they have to do is provide lip service to the constitution and say ‘We considered everything,’ and proceeded to ignore them,” Caballero said. “The constitutional criteria are meant to be followed, not ignored.”

Recktenwald asked both attorneys if they believe the commission could come up with new maps in time for the next election if the court strikes down the current maps.

Caballero said the commission should be able to do it before elections this fall. The commission was placed in a similar situation when the high court invalidated maps in 2012. It took the commission about a month-and-a-half to redraw final maps after that court ruling.

Chun said it would depend on what guidelines the court hands down this time. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, she said the commission plans to hold at least two public hearings before deliberating on new maps.

The residents bringing the lawsuit also argue that it was improper for the nine-member reapportionment commission to leave the work of redrawing the maps to a group of four commissioners called the Technical Group, which met in secret because the Hawaii open meetings law allows board members to create sub-committees that convene out of the public eye.

However, most of the justices did not delve into that issue at Tuesday’s session.

The current commission maps would see at least three pairs of incumbent lawmakers face off in elections this year.

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?

About the Author