On Tuesday, December 26, 2023, Civil Beat reported that a Big Island family court judge had faced allegations of a potential conflict of interest.
According to the report, Judge Mahilani Hiatt served on the board of directors for a nonprofit organization called the Children’s Law Project of Hawaii. This organization provides guardian ad litems, or GALs, who are appointed by family courts to represent the interests of children in cases involving alleged abuse or neglect.
However, Judge Hiatt was also presiding over cases in her role as a part-time family court judge, which meant GALs from the Children’s Law Project could potentially find themselves opposed to parents or other parties in cases in her court. This presented a potential conflict of interest according to Hawaii’s judicial conduct rules.
The case came to light after a father named Daniel Robinson appeared before Judge Hiatt regarding a temporary restraining order filed by his ex-wife. Robinson later realized Judge Hiatt’s role with the nonprofit and reported the potential conflict to authorities.
When Civil Beat asked the judiciary about the allegations, Judge Hiatt resigned from the nonprofit board the next day and reported the situation to the state’s judicial conduct commission. Since then, Judge Hiatt has filed written disclosures about her previous role in all past cases involving the Children’s Law Project guardians.
Legal experts interviewed in the report said the situation did not necessarily amount to a serious ethical breach on its own. However, some voiced concerns about transparency given the “coziness” that can develop between frequent players in Hawaii’s family court system.
The report also highlighted the lack of publicly available information about judicial complaints in Hawaii. Despite hundreds of complaints during the 2020-21 fiscal year, the Conduct Commission dismissed all seven cases it investigated. How it handles the new complaint regarding Judge Hiatt remains unclear.
The story raises questions about maintaining proper ethical boundaries and public oversight within the state’s family court system. It appears to mark the first formal steps toward addressing the conflict of interest issue initially uncovered by Mr. Robinson.
Source: Civil Beat