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Politics in Hawaii: Is Something Broken?

From the Bishop Estate scandal of the 1990s to today’s Act 221 and Department of Education governance, politics in Hawai‘i is plagued by a lack of transparency and accountability.


(page 5 of 7)

Where were the Consequences?

I’ve described the lack of accountability for the Bishop Estate trustees, their lawyers and the many legislators and hangers-on who abused Princess Pauahi’s trust, and the way the Judicial Selection Commission managed to extend three of the justices’ terms in office without apparently discussing the “Broken Trust” authors’ memo. One might wonder if those justices were ever held accountable by other oversight organizations such as the Judicial Conduct Commission (an appointed, governmental body that is supposed to take action when a judge in Hawaii acts unethically), American Judicature Society (a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization whose mission includes building public confidence in the system of justice) and Hawaii State Bar Association (the state’s licensed lawyers).


So far, none of these “watchdog” organizations has said anything about the many allegations of serious judicial misconduct. For example, investigators with the attorney general’s office found numerous instances in which justices kept in touch with trustees through private conversations—even in the days when Kamehameha Schools alumni were marching to protest the trustees’ leadership. Or consider also the Bishop Estate internal memo, discovered by law enforcement personnel in a secret wall safe at Kawaiahao Plaza, that detailed how “CJ Moon” ought to handle the trustee-selection process, at a time when insiders were seen as angling for a way to get former Gov. John Waihee named as a trustee. However, it was as if, once the trustees who brought so much attention to the estate were removed in 1999, any thought of holding the justices accountable for their role ended.


Last year, when I learned that the Hawaii chapter of the American Judicature Society had formed a committee on judicial accountability, I asked to appear before them and made the following statement:


“Something is wrong with the system of judicial accountability when serious questions can be raised about the conduct of a state’s entire Supreme Court without an official body either coming to the defense of those justices or taking steps to hold those justices accountable. Given the seriousness and specificity of the allegations in the Broken Trust essay and book, one would expect some kind of response. Thus far, the silence has been deafening.”


I suppose it was predictable that the Judicial Conduct Commission would do nothing; after all, Moon selected its members. And he did not just select them; he held them over when their terms expired.


Maybe you’re wondering why more people don’t know about such cozy relationships. Perhaps it’s because the workings of the Judicial Conduct Commission, like those of the Judicial Selection Commission and, now, the Regent Selection Panel are cloaked in secrecy.


During my appearance before the American Judicature Society committee on judicial accountability, I invited its members to ask me anything about what Judge King and I had written in Broken Trust.


“Something is wrong with the system of judicial accountability when serious questions can be raised about the conduct of a state’s entire Supreme Court…”

I mention this because when that committee later met with Moon, one of its members asked him a question about something from the book. The chief justice’s response was that he would not be answering any questions about anything contained in Broken Trust. Nobody objected, and nothing of this was reported to the public. The Hawaii State Bar Association also chose not to press for answers.


Another thing I’ve come to understand better is why it is we have such a hard time insisting on something better. It hasn’t been an easy lesson to learn.


On the Importance of Speaking Out—and the Cost

I come from a rural community in Western Kansas, called Ellinwood. My dad never attended college. Mom earned a scholarship to Fort Hays State, but had to withdraw after her first year to help take care of her younger siblings.


In those days, Kansas was a one-party state, dominated by the Republicans. My parents, however, were Democrats, capital-D Democrats. They were involved in many causes, and for quite a few years Mom chaired the county Democratic Party.


While I was in college, I became increasingly disappointed with our system of government. Politicians seemed primarily interested in political power and special interests, and didn’t seem to care much about the little guys of the world.


I started reading about communism, and I liked what I read. I liked the idea of people contributing according to their ability and consuming according to their need. I also liked the thought of selfless leaders working for the greater good.


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Honolulu Magazine October 2018
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