Hawaii legislative committee approves plans to revise state’s merit selection system, gender diversity on the bench, retirement ages

Hawaii may very well join Arizona and Florida in putting forth revisions and revamping of their respective state’s merit selection systems for judicial selection in 2012. On Friday, January 27 the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor held hearings and unanimously approved a variety of constitutional amendments related to judicial selection and mandatory retirement ages for judges.

SB 2205 / SB 2209

One of the particular pieces of angst expressed by governors and others with state merit selection systems is the limitation on the names submitted by the merit selection commission. Arizona’s SCR 1001, for example, expands the number of choices for the governor from “not less than 3” to “not less than 8” (a two-thirds majority can reject an applicant and submit less than 8). Other proposals have sought similar expansions.

That is what sets Hawaii’s proposed constitutional amendment SB 2205 apart. Currently, the state’s judicial nominating commission sends “not less than four, and not more than six” names to the Governor for vacancies on the Supreme, Intermediate Appellate & Circuit Courts. For the state’s limited jurisdiction District Courts, the Chief Justice selects “from not less than 6” names.

SB 2205, however, reduces the selection down to 3 in all instances/courts. Senator Clayton Hill, the chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor, stated that by reducing the number “you reduce the politics”.

A companion constitutional amendment, SB 2209, would require the judicial selection commission disclose the names of and other statistical information regarding active nominees and applicants to fill justice and judge vacancies (amendment language in bold)

The deliberations of the commission shall be confidential with the exception of disclosing the names of nominees and the names of applicants to fill any justice or judge vacancies.  The commission shall disclose the names of active applicants to fill a justice or judge vacancy at the close of each application period as well as statistical information that serves the public interest, including but not limited to the total number, gender, and experience of applicants.

This issue of gender diversity is one the Hawaii Senate is on record as being concerned by. SR 26 and SCR 37, both adopted by the Senate in 2010, recited a litany of statistics regarding the gender diversity of the state’s bench and “strongly urged” then-Governor Linda Lingle “to use and consider gender equality when appointing judges and justices in the future…”

SB 2206

In 2006 Hawaii’s (heavily Democratic) legislature suddenly became interested in increasing the mandatory retirement age for the state’s judiciary. It may, or may not, have been a coincidence that the interest occurred right when the first Republican governor in 5 decades was about to appoint several judges and justices who were being forced out of office due to the mandatory retirement age of 70. SB 995 of 2006 to simply eliminate the mandatory retirement age was rejected 2-1 by voters.

In 2012, with a Democratic governor in office, SB 2006 was introduced to amend the state’s constitution and allow judges and justices to serve until age 80. If approved by voters, it would give Hawaii one of the highest mandatory retirement age in the U.S. (Vermont judges can serve until the end of the year they turn 90).

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