Hawaii: bills would end merit/commission selection of judges in state, replace with elections and senate confirmations; for first time has Democrats as co-sponsors

Over the last several years there have been no sustained efforts to alter Hawaii’s merit/commission selection system for selecting judges. The two proposals that were introduced were done so by the Senate’s only Republican member (Sen. Sam Slom). In 2016, however, several Democratic members of the Hawaii Senate want to see an end to merit/commission selection in the state.

First, some background

SB 423 of 2005 Provided for elections for the state’s supreme court only. The bill was introduced by the Senate’s only Republican member (Slom). The identical SB 798 of 2013 was again introduced by the Senate’s only Republican member (Slom). Neither bill was ever taken up in committee.

There the matter lay until this year with HB 2139 of 2016 and the identical SB 2239 of 2016. Both bills begin by citing to a “December 2013 article for the National Center for State Courts” regarding trends in judicial selection. In full disclosure, that article was written by me.

The bills go on to eliminate the state’s merit/commission based system and replace it with a two step approach:

Election for initial terms: Currently a list of nominees is sent by the Judicial Selection Commission to the governor (supreme court, intermediate appellate court, circuit court) or chief justice (district court) to select from. After a nominee is chosen he or she is subject to senate confirmation.

HB 2139 and SB 2239 replace this system with direct elections. (“The justices and judges shall be elected by the qualified voters of this State at a general election as provided by law.”)

Additional terms: currently judges seeking to remain in office go back before the Judicial Selection Commission for evaluation and re-approval; neither the governor nor the chief justice nor the senate is involved. (“If the judicial selection commission determines that the justice or judge should be retained in office, the commission shall renew the term of office of the justice or judge for the period provided by this section or by law.”)

HB 2139 and SB 2239 would not require judges run for re-election again; instead they would have to come before the senate who “shall hold a public hearing and vote to consent or not consent to retention of each petitioning justice or judge.”

Terms in office: in addition to change the method of selection/retention, the bills cut judge’s terms in office. Currently judges of the state’s top courts serve for 10 year terms; district court terms are set by statute at six years.

The bills would set the term of office for all judges at six years.

HB 2139 is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. SB 2339 is pending in the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee.