House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas Is A ‘Gatekeeper’ For Sunshine Bills - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Nancy Cook Lauer

Nancy Cook Lauer, who’s covered state and local governments for 30 years in Hawaii and Florida, is the publisher of All Hawaii News (, a news aggregate and commentary blog since 2008.

The Big Island lawmaker leads the committee tasked with tackling a slew of government reform proposals.

Rep. David Tarnas didn’t ask to be made chairman of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

A land planner by trade and former chairman of the House Water and Land Committee, he fully expected to return to that post this legislative session. In fact, he’d already met with the pertinent administrative agencies and had prepared a package of bills.

His best-laid plans changed abruptly when House Speaker Scott Saiki stepped in.

“I took a deep breath and said ‘yes,’” Tarnas said in an interview this week.

Tarnas has already raised some hackles by deferring bills in his committee without debate or votes by committee members. That’s within a committee chair’s purview, but still, it rankles some.

Rep. David Tarnas, right, is the new chair of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, a high-profile responsibility that includes hundreds of bills on ethics reform. (Screenshot/Hawaii Legislature/2023)

“The unilateral power of the chair to kill bills without holding a public vote is a key ingredient in the formula for corruption at the Hawaii Legislature,” former legislator Gary Hooser said in an email blast Tuesday. “This is why crooked businessmen can bribe crooked politicians to kill bills they don’t like. This is why big money gives big money to the chairs of big money committees.”

Tarnas has tried to blunt criticism of the chair’s power by publicly explaining why each bill was deferred.

That’s not enough for Hooser, who said, “The rules in the House and the Senate could be changed tomorrow to require a public vote in order to kill a bill.”

  • A Special Commentary Project

Faced with a deluge of ethics, campaign spending and open government reforms this year in the wake of a flurry of federal investigations resulting in corruption counts against elected and appointed officials, Saiki thought Tarnas would be a perfect fit.

Neither an attorney nor a Hawaiian, Tarnas, 62, a Democrat from Waimea on the Big Island, might seem an unlikely choice to lead a committee called Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.

Saiki doesn’t think so.

“Sometimes non-attorneys make the best judiciary chairs because they go into the job with a neutral and objective perspective,” Saiki said in an interview. “David is intelligent, unafraid and has a good head on his shoulders. He’s calm, deliberative and patient.”

Saiki first met Tarnas when both were serving in the House in 1994. Tarnas served until 1998, then left the Legislature and was, for a time, Hawaii County chairman of the state Democratic Party before returning to the House in 2018.

Tarnas points out there are a couple of attorneys on the committee and both his office and the House Majority Office have attorneys on staff. It’s an advantage for the public that he’s a non-attorney, he said, because “I have to ask for answers in plain English and not legalese,” thus helping the public better understand the issues as well.

Saiki and Tarnas have said felony charges against two of their own were especially “shocking and embarrassing,” as Tarnas put it.

Former Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, a Maui Democrat, and former House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Ty Cullen, a Central Oahu Democrat, pleaded guilty last year in federal court to felony charges of honest services wire fraud for accepting bribes in exchange for shaping legislation that would benefit a company involved in publicly financed cesspool conversion projects.

David is intelligent, unafraid and has a good head on his shoulders.

Scott Saiki

But they were far from the only examples of corruption in government. A parade of elected officials and appointed bureaucrats in all four counties visited federal court in the past few years on a range of charges from accepting bribes to fraud to drug trafficking.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, appointed by the House, came up with 31 specific recommendations to be considered in the current legislative session. The commission is often referred to as the Foley commission after its chairman, retired Hawaii Judge Dan Foley.

Saiki and Tarnas pledged to have all Foley commission bills heard during the legislative session. But there are some caveats.

Some bills might be carried over to the second year of the two-year session, rather than this year. And some Foley commission bills might be deferred as redundant if similar bills are cleared first.
Some 532 bills were referred to his committee, Tarnas said.

There are also campaign finance bills in the House that are similar to Foley commission bills that are advancing. An example is House Bill 463 on reporting campaign expenditures.

With less than two weeks remaining before the March 3 deadline when all bills must clear their committees before moving to the other chamber, the Foley commission bills are finally trickling into the Judiciary Committee. There are 16 scheduled to be heard on Wednesday in Tarnas’ committee.

That was a deliberate move on his part, Tarnas said, as Foley commission measures typically had just one committee referral while other similar or identical bills had two or three. His procedure for the first time heard specific agency bills in a single hearing, so some bills with fewer referrals were considered in the same meeting.

Thus, bills sponsored by state agencies took early precedence over Foley commission bills. The Office of Elections, the Campaign Spending Commission and the Ethics Commission all had representation on the Foley commission, and those agencies submitted bills similar, if not identical, to the commission bills, Tarnas said.

In fact, Foley himself submitted written testimony in favor of at least one of the similar bills.
Foley commission bills, however, have so far received mixed reviews in the committee.

Only one of the six Foley commission bills heard Feb. 8 passed Tarnas’ committee. House Bill 719, imposing a cap on charges for the reproduction of certain government records, is similar to a bill passed by the Legislature last year but vetoed by then-Gov. David Ige. A similar measure, Senate Bil 991, is also moving through the Senate this session.

Two other Foley commission bills were deferred because a version of the bill had already passed and three others deferred for constitutional or philosophical reasons.

Tarnas is taking heat from some advocates and commentary writers over single-handedly stopping one bill in particular, House Bill 796, offering a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on state legislators.

Still, both Tarnas and Saiki say they’re committed to passing reform measures.

“We’re not promising that every single bill will be approved but they will be heard,” Saiki said. “Reform is still a priority for the public. … My feeling is that the public wants us to improve the way we do business.”

Tarnas seconded that.

“People are absolutely outraged,” he said. “It’s not like the passage of time has made people forget.”

Read this next:

The Military's Public Information Black Hole

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Nancy Cook Lauer

Nancy Cook Lauer, who’s covered state and local governments for 30 years in Hawaii and Florida, is the publisher of All Hawaii News (, a news aggregate and commentary blog since 2008.

Latest Comments (0)

Does he consider reform a priority? Does he want the legislature to be more transparent and less susceptible to backdoor influence peddling?

Fred_Garvin · 7 months ago

I have considerable sympathy for David given it was not a committee assignment he sought and it is one that no matter what one does, you are going to draw fire from multiple somebodies. As stated in the article "Some 532 bills were referred to his committee". Having spend considerable time at the legislature in years past, I have trouble seeing how any committee can process that many, often competing, bills given the legislative calendar. Worthy of note in these comments, Judge Foley wrote "Rep. Tarnas has been an outstanding pick to chair JHA. Smart, always well prepared, transparent and reasonable." I have had many discussions with David and I share Judge Foley's opinion.

Kamuelabob · 7 months ago

Rep. Tarnas has an open door to viewpoints including those other than his own and is one of the most open and transparent policy leaders, supporting the expression of multiple perspectives at hearings and welcoming — inviting — diverse viewpoints. He has been a steadfast advocate for community voice. To criticize him for aspects of the process that are inherent in the legislature — 3,000+ bills simply can’t all get a hearing — is unfair. He is a solid, responsive, thoughtful leader.

Readersareleaders · 7 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.