HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The State Senate Judiciary committee advanced the nomination of Circuit Judge Michael Wilson to the Supreme Court Thursday, against the wishes of the Hawaii State Bar Association that said he was "unqualified" for the post.
The incoming head of the Hawaii State Bar Association told senators that the group's board determined Wilson was unqualified to be a Supreme Court Justice, but following their policy, will not release the reasons for that determination, to protect lawyers from retaliation by judges.
"They're afraid of retribution as it may affect their clients, not themselves. So that's why our process is what it is. And we know that the process can be frustrating," said attorney Greg Markham, the president-elect of the local bar association.
Wilson said during a three-hour interview with the lawyers' group's board of directors, attorneys didn't spend much time asking about his 13 years as a circuit court judge. Instead he claimed they spent more time asking him about anonymous, vague allegations involving his personal life, all of which he denied.
"All I could say was, if you can give me some information, I might be able to answer. But otherwise, I can tell you with certainty there's no complaint that's been filed, I've never been arrested. I've never been publicly intoxicated, that I'm aware of."
Wilson told senators he rarely drinks alcohol and he tried to learn more about the public drunkenness charge.
"I asked, can you give me some more information, like, for example, when or where? And the answer was no, it's anonymous and we can't give you any specifics. But why do you think somebody would say that if it's not true?" Wilson said.
He also denied an allegation that he sexually harassed a Miss Universe contestant 14 years ago, a charge that senators had been unable to substantiate back in 2000 when Wilson was first confirmed to the bench.
"If you present allegations to a nominee, why can't you present a summary of them to the public?" asked State Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who echoed the frustrations voiced by all the members of committee complaining about the Bar Association's policy not to explain why it gave Wilson an "unqualified" rating.
"It's just remarkable that secret, anonymous allegations can take a person's public record of 20, 30 or more years and try to trash it," said Federal Public Defender Peter Wolff, Wilson's former law partner, one of many well-known attorneys who spoke to the committee on his behalf.
No one spoke against Wilson at the hearing but many of the 95 people who submitted testimony in support of Wilson were lawyers upset with their own Bar Association's actions.
"The process that the Bar used to come up with its recommendation to you folks and our community is shameful. The Bar is supposed to speak for due process," said criminal defense attorney Brook Hart, for whom Wilson worked as a law clerk, associate and then law partner in the late 1970s and 1980s.
After a more than four-hour hearing, the Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send Wilson's nomination on to a vote of the full State Senate.
State Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the judiciary committee, said his office received a phone call Thursday morning from a woman who said Wilson was "incompetent and lazy" when he represented her in a sexual harassment case in 1992. The woman, who now lives on the mainland, gave her name and number to Hee and claimed Wilson missed deadlines and lost evidence in the case so she went to another attorney who later won her case, Hee said.
Hee and fellow senators did not question Wilson about that case.
Hee did ask him if he had "mistreated" people as a judge or as chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
Wilson denied that, saying "That wouldn't be something that I'd expect."
Wilson declined to answer Hawaii News Now's questions about whether the Bar Association panel asked him about mistreating his circuit court law clerks. Wilson said he would not comment further than what he had told senators.