In an opinion piece posted on November 26, 2023, by Chad Blair, the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat, Blair discusses the possibility of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission increasing its oversight of judges in the state. Blair raises several issues with the current lack of transparency around judicial ethics.

Currently, the state’s Ethics Commission oversees financial disclosures and investigates complaints against employees of the Hawaii State Judiciary but excludes judges and justices from this oversight. This makes it difficult for the public, including reporters like Blair, to access important information about gifts received by judges or complaints filed against them. At a recent Ethics Commission meeting, Executive Director Robert Harris mentioned initiating discussions with the judiciary about reviewing existing processes and considering potential areas for improvement.

The idea of broadening the Ethics Commission’s role was proposed by Wesley Fong, who chairs the commission. Fong, an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii, noted the US Supreme Court recently adopted its first-ever code of ethics after some highly publicized controversies. However, critics argue the new federal code lacks enforcement teeth. According to Blair, Fong suggested independent oversight would be preferable to the Court self-monitoring its own conduct. Fong said Hawaii’s judiciary seems receptive to exploring increased oversight with the Ethics Commission, though any changes require legislative and judicial approval.

Currently, the Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates complaints against Hawaii judges and justices. However, as Blair points out, this commission is appointed entirely by the state Supreme Court it oversees. Data reviewed by Blair shows the commission rarely finds wrongdoing after dismissing the vast majority of hundreds of annual complaints in recent years with little transparency.

While the judiciary has its own code of conduct covering issues like impartiality, Blair questions whether it provides sufficient accountability. For example, as he reported recently, a new Supreme Court justice did not fully disclose his prior involvement with a political action committee on judicial applications or to the state Senate. This indicates more robust, independent ethics oversight could help ensure proper vetting and compliance.

In making the case for expanded oversight by the non-partisan Ethics Commission, Blair aims to promote greater transparency, accountability, and public trust in the judicial system, which sometimes deals with politically controversial issues. Blair believes residents deserve confidence that judges and justices are acting with impartiality and integrity. Only time will tell if the Ethics Commission, legislature, and judiciary can agree on reforms to strengthen ethics rules and enforcement.

 

Source: Civil Beat