Justices must juggle reviews, administrative tasks
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By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
There's a whole lot of juggling going on in the chambers of the Hawai'i Supreme Court.
Justices don't just spend all of their days pondering opinions. They also tend to other matters, including reviewing and making decisions on various issues that reach their desks, including procedural motions, attorney disciplinary cases, rule changes and other paperwork. That's estimated to take anywhere from a third to half of a justice's time.
A member of Chief Justice Ronald Moon's staff said Moon, who is the administrative leader of the state's courts, spends 65 percent to 75 percent of his day on administrative matters and the rest of the time on appellate case work. He typically works 12-hour days, taking work home and coming to the office almost every Saturday and sometimes on Sunday.
Justices also occasionally attend and speak at functions such as government ceremonies and community meetings.
"I get this feeling that so many people don't understand what the justices do," Moon said. "The justices here, we don't just handle these cases. ... There is so much more to this job."
There is also juggling involved in handling appeals.
The appeals process begins with a notice of appeal from a person who is dissatisfied with the outcome of a case. But many steps must be completed, usually taking several months, before the appeal is ready to be reviewed by the Supreme Court justices or the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
Those steps include deciding whether the Supreme Court has the authority to review the appeal, and receiving legal briefs from the appealing and opposing parties.
All parties in a court case have a right to appeal a state judge's decision. The Supreme Court receives all appeals and, after all the briefs have been filed, assigns cases to the Intermediate Court of Appeals or handles them itself.
The Supreme Court usually handles cases that fall under certain criteria. That includes cases in which there is no precedent relating to the issues, cases that involve life sentences in prison without parole, state or federal constitutional interpretation, or questions of law regarding the validity of statutes, ordinances or regulations.
Each justice is assigned an appeal and is responsible for writing a proposed decision for the court. Associate Justice Steven Levinson, now the assignment justice, said he assigns appeals so that each justice is responsible for a similar number of cases with an equal range of complexity. If a particular justice is working on a certain issue or has been an authority on a line of cases, he will usually assign him or her an appeal that raises the same issue.
The chief justice assigns appeals that are tentatively designated by the assignment justice as warranting oral argument a chance for both sides to make their case in court.
The justices don't handle their cases alone. Each associate justice has two law clerks, and the chief justice has three. Justices use law clerks differently, but the basic job of the clerk is to read cases, analyze them, research case law and make a recommendation.
The court also has five staff attorneys who advise on issues including rule changes, petitions, and whether a case should be assigned to the Supreme Court or the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
Once a justice completes a draft decision it is circulated to the other justices for review. At any given time a justice can be handling at various stages of the process five to 10 of his or her own draft decisions while reviewing the drafts circulated by the other justices.
In most cases the justices do not completely agree with the proposed decision; they may question whether the law is being properly applied or make recommendations and comments. Several drafts may be circulated back and forth on one case before an agreement can be reached, and if justices can't reach a consensus they will discuss it in conferences, which are held on Thursdays.
Such conferences are only held if all five justices can attend, and it is rare for the justices to invite a staff member to sit in. These meetings take place in a conference room next to Moon's office. Moon sits at the head of a rectangular table while the most senior associate justices sit closest to him.
If the justices cannot work out their differences in conference, the court will issue a majority opinion and a dissenting or concurring opinion.