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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

9th Circuit Court: Is it getting too big?

The huge 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the biggest in the country, encompasses Western states from Alaska to Arizona, dominant California, Hawai'i and even the American flag islands in the Pacific.

For years there has been a push to break up the 9th into two smaller circuits. Proponents say the courts would be more efficient and that cases wouldn't become "lost" in a more compact circuit.

For Hawai'i, the idea has a certain appeal. If for no other reason, a new circuit would increase the chances that a judge from Hawai'i would sit on the appeals bench. Until two weeks ago, when the Senate approved Richard Clifton's nomination, it had been about 15 years since a full-time jurist from Hawai'i had occupied one of the circuit's 28 judicial slots.

Another reason to split the court would be to reduce its big backlog.

However, politics is also at issue. Senators from conservative mountain states, appalled at the liberal tenor of decisions rendered by California judges who dominate the 9th, have wanted to split off a new 12th Circuit comprising Hawai'i, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, plus Montana and Arizona. The new 9th would then become California and Nevada, plus the flag islands.

The House is also considering legislation that would redraw the 9th to include California, Nevada and Arizona, with Hawai'i and the other entities forming the 12th.

Although it once opposed such a split, the Hawai'i Bar Association currently has no position on the issue. But it will. Split or no split, the ramifications for Hawai'i are serious. From federal-state conflicts over labor and health laws to native Hawaiian rights and entitlements, all legal roads lead through the 9th Circuit.

It is imperative that Hawai'i's point of view be well represented there.