The House Finance Committee will hold a public hearing at 2 p.m. today (April 4) on SB 249, somewhat innocuously titled, “Relating to Retirement.”
The bill would cut the pension benefits of future judges by one-third, while leaving the retirements of other key public employees and officials—police officers, fire fighters, and elected officials, including of course legislators themselves—unscathed.
It’s the latest move in a series of attempts by certain legislative leaders to single out state judges for punishment, apparently for unstated political transgressions.
Former Chief Justice Ronald Moon, in earlier testimony, called the bill “unfair and unjust by singling out—and discriminating against—judges.”
Moon called it right. The bill, if approved, would single out judges from all other public employees.
And recently retired Circuit Court Judge Steve Alm pointed out the legislation represents the same kind of disrespect for the an independent judiciary that has brought so much criticism of President Trump.
Testifying before the House Committee on Labor and Public Employment, Alm called out Democratic lawmakers who have allowed the measure to move forward.
Alm noted that the anti-judiciary bills began surfacing after a November 2015 decision by First Circuit Court Judge Jeannette Castagnetti which called on the legislature to increase its funding for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in order to meet its constitutional obligations to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.
“This decision lead to a certain amount of reported consternation at the Hawaii Legislature,” Alm said. And that, in turn, led to speculation that the bills were intended as a political response to the judge’s legal decision.
Nationally, we are seeing a different branch of government, the Executive this time, respond to specific court rulings regarding the travel ban in negative terms. President Trump has called Seattle Federal District Court Judge James Robart, a “so-called judge” and he has criticized Hawaii Federal District Court Judge Derrick Watson’s recent decision as “political.” Fortunately, these federal judges are protected by the Constitution with lifetime appointments to make decisions as the Constitution, statutes, and the facts of a specific case call for, and not have to fear adverse action by the other two branches of government in response to their decisions.
I cannot imagine the Hawaii legislature, with so much to be proud of in its storied history, would in any way want to be lumped together with President Trump in responding officially against another branch of government based on a ruling in a specific case.
The worst thing about this and other bills that have attacked the judiciary over the past two sessions is that none of the bills’ sponsors have taken responsibility and explained what problem they have been intended to fix, or what court decisions raised their ire.
The sponsors have been silent. No justifications have been offered. No problems identified. Just silent, sullen pressure to move the bills forward.
SB 249 was introduced by Senators Gil Keith-Agaran, Lorraine Inouye, Donovan Dela Cruz, and Donna Mercado Kim. The House companion, which died earlier, was introduced by Speaker Joe Souki, “by request.”
The whole episode is giving the legislature a black eye. Seeking to pass legislation for reasons no one is willing to articluate and, as a result, remain secret, is unbecoming our Democratic majority. The public has a keen interest in maintaining an independent judiciary, and Democratic lawmakers should be called to account for their actions.
This bill, like the others aimed at punishing judges, should be killed now.