Chad Blair: Next Hawaii Governor May Pick Three Supreme Court Justices - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Notice went out on Friday that there is soon to be a vacancy on the five-member Hawaii Supreme Court.

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The press release did not say who, exactly, is leaving the high court, but several people in the know tell me it’s Michael Wilson.

The spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Judiciary referred me to the Judicial Selection Commission, which put out the press release. But the commission administrator did not respond to several inquiries this week. Wilson’s chamber did not call back, either.

The Judiciary’s website is not much help, as it provides no specific information on age, even though it makes clear that justices must retire by age 70.

It also says that Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald’s term runs until 2030 and Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna’s until 2031, but that’s misleading. Those dates actually represent the end of their respective 10-year terms and not when they reach retirement age.

This much I do know: An article dated Aug. 14, 2015, from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s online archive reported that Wilson was 62 at that time. That would suggest the justice, who was appointed in 2014, will indeed turn 70 sometime next year.

But an article from Civil Beat published on Feb. 18, 2014, gave Wilson’s age as 60. (The reporter was someone named Chad Blair.) Hawaii News Now and Pacific Business News reports at the time gave the same age, too.

Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson during press conference held at UH Law building on Environmental Court. 26 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson is retiring soon, giving a high court vacancy to the next governor. Because of age limit requirements, there may be several more to come. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Whatever. It appears that Wilson will hit the retirement age sometime soon, meaning it will fall during the next governor’s first four-year term, even if the Judicial Selection Commission won’t say so.

“The commission should disclose whose seat will be vacant,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki. “I don’t understand why it’s a secret.”

Meanwhile, Justice Paula Nakayama is set to turn 70 a year from now, according to Google searches, while Recktenwald hits that mark in 2025. That means either Democrat Josh Green or Republican Duke Aiona will have at least three pukas to fill on the bench.

In fact, Nakayama’s term expires in April, suggesting there could be another notice for a vacancy coming shortly. And McKenna was born in 1957, so if either Green or Aiona wins a second term, there might be a fourth pick as well.

That’s a lot of impact for the next governor, though all applicants are screened by the nine-member Judicial Selection Commission before a list of “not less than four and not more than six names” is sent to the fifth floor of the state Capitol.

The Senate Judiciary Committee handles the confirmation hearings, and the judicial pick needs to be approved by the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

So, that’s another thing to think about when you vote for Hawaii governor. Whatever you think of President Donald Trump, it is arguable that his greatest achievement was the appointment of three conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court.

70 Is The New 60

Which brings me to a second thing: Why are Hawaii judges and justices required to sail into the sunset at 70? After all, at the federal level SCOTUS justices serve for life, and Clarence Thomas is now 74.

Trump and President Joe Biden, who may have a rematch two years from how, are 76 and 79, respectfully. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are even older and yet still serving.

Here at home, the mayor of Honolulu, Rick Blangiardi, is 76, and he’s already talking about a second term come 2024. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono is 76 years young.

Hawaii State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald flanked by associate justices enter court to hear oral arguments on a reapportionment case.
From left: Associate Justice Paula Nakayama, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna, Associate Justice Todd Eddins and Associate Justice Mike Wilson. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

By my count, there are also at least a dozen other elected officials statewide who have already qualified for Social Security payments but are still working. And more power to them.

Hawaii voters had a chance in 2014 to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges and justices from 70 to 80, but they rejected the constitutional amendment by a wide margin.

In 2006, Hawaii voters also rejected a Con Am that would have repealed the mandatory retirement age of judges and justices. The retirement age, it should be noted, was set in 1959, the year of statehood and when the state’s constitution was adopted.

“People now live longer, healthier, and more productive lives and are contributing to their community and their jobs well past the age of seventy,” then-Attorney General David Louie and Deputy AG Charleen Aina wrote in 2013 testimony to the Legislature in favor of the Con Am. “In the local legal community, some of the finest minds and best attorneys are older than seventy.”

They continued:

“This amendment would also bring Hawaii in line with the federal judiciary and many other states. For example, the federal judiciary system has no age limit for justices and judges. Likewise, at least twenty states have no such age limit. These jurisdictions have recognized that removing the accumulated wisdom of these judges because they have reached the relatively young age of seventy makes little sense.”

Agreed.

Interested in being an associate justice? It pays $229,668. Applicants have to be residents and citizens of Hawaii and licensed to practice law here for not less than 10 years preceding nomination. The application must be postmarked or delivered to the Judiciary on or before the Jan. 12.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting past the Senate, as Wilson himself might agree. While he was ultimately confirmed by 23 of the 24 senators at the time (one was absent), the hearings were a tough go, as we reported.

But that’s all history now. Best wishes to Justice Wilson on the next chapter of his life.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

I believe the history of Hawaii's Supreme Court Justices appear to favor constitutional textualism; due to the fact of how Hawaii’s selection model is designed to protect judges from outside influences. Nothing will change, cases will get decided, appealed and constitutional errors will be corrected by the SCOH if it should decide so!

BRG · 1 month ago

70 may be the new 60 but that's still doesn't keep one as sharp as in their 50'sI would have to say to keep retirement age for our Judges where they are and change the term limits for US Supreme Court Judges, And all elected officials in any type of government position and repeal all free life time health benefits and take health payment from their retirement plan to pay for those health benefits.

Toshi · 1 month ago

I think there are plenty of younger lawyers who have what it takes to be an outstanding judge or justice. I don’t see why we should extend the retirement age just because selected judges and justices are still competent beyond that age. Time to let the next generation move up.

CBsupporter · 1 month ago

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