A new take on selecting judges
By Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka
The confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court unfolded on national television. The discussion was passionate and policy-oriented. Yet, throughout the debate, there was never a question raised about Sotomayor's legal competency and qualifications. In the end, on Aug. 8, 2009, our nation witnessed the confirmation of the first Hispanic person to serve as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
We in the U.S. Senate have the responsibility of confirming federal judges, whether to the highest court of our land, or to our very own U.S. District Court in Hawai'i. With each nomination we ask ourselves what are the most important qualities of a good judge? Legal ability and experience. Integrity and moral courage. Compassion and wisdom. It is all of the above.
Finding the right federal judicial nominee is not easy. But it is a lifetime appointment, so picking correctly is imperative. Federal judges interpret and uphold our Constitution. They protect our civil rights and individual liberties, which are at the heart of our democracy. In Hawai'i, there are four full-time federal judges. They decide many, many important cases that affect our daily lives, with issues ranging from the environment, Native Hawaiian rights, discrimination, immigration and commerce.
On April 27, 2005, Michael Seabright was confirmed as the fourth judge to Hawai'i's federal bench. His confirmation ended a political stalemate that lasted more than two years, significantly impeding the court's ability to dispense justice on a timely basis. At that moment, we decided that it was time to reconsider the establishment of a merit-based federal judicial selection commission in Hawai'i.
By way of background, in 1979, during the Carter administration, the late U.S. Sen. Spark Matsunaga and Sen. Inouye collaborated with the Hawaii State Bar Association to create the Hawai'i Federal Judicial Selection Commission. The goal was to depoliticize the judicial selection process to the greatest extent possible — to remove the biting partisanship that often creeps in, focusing more on political support and contributions than on legal skills and judicial temperament.
We knowingly relinquished a portion of our political prerogative to the commission to ensure the highest standard of judicial competency for Hawai'i's federal court. Unfortunately, a few years later with the change in administration, political pressure, patronage appointments and partisan wrangling returned to limit the effectiveness of the commission. It was disbanded with much unpleasantness and bitterness.
Yet, the underlying basis for the commission holds true today, more than 30 years later. While we will continue to make our recommendations to the White House, we want to select from a qualified list of applicants. We want to be able to assure the White House that any of the two to three candidates we submit possesses the legal skill, experience and integrity to bring honor to the federal bench. At that point, it is the prerogative of the president to make the final selection for submission to the Senate for confirmation.
Accordingly, the Hawai'i Federal Judicial Selection Commission was re-established in July 2006. With U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor's recent announcement of her intent to retire in the fall, the com-mission has been activated.
The commission is now accepting applications and nominations. To practicing attorneys, we invite you to consider applying for the vacancy. To the public, we encourage you to consider nominating those whom you believe are fair and knowledgeable to serve on the federal bench. We encourage you to be part of the process.
Completed applications must be submitted by Sept. 4. With the community's involvement, we are hopeful that the commission will provide us with qualified, outstanding candidates to serve ably and honorably on the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawai'i.