'TMT bill' would eliminate lower courts from appeals process

'TMT bill' would eliminate lower courts from appeals process
Published: Apr. 28, 2016 at 9:31 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 28, 2016 at 10:59 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - House and Senate lawmakers agreed Thursday to a bill that would speed up contested case appeals to five state agencies by eliminating lower courts from the process.

The measure applies to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, which issues rulings on conservation districts and permitting for projects like the Thirty Meter Telescope. Challenges to contested case hearings at four other boards -- Water Resource Management and Land Use Commissions, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Hawaii Community Development Authority -- would also be directed straight to the state Supreme Court, bypassing two lower courts.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, (D-McCully, Kaheka, Kakaako, Downtown) said the measure is about speeding up appeals that can bog down projects.

"There have been several cases that have just lingered in the courts for years and years and that's unfortunate because it costs everyone time and money when that happens," he said. "We just want to bring certainty to these cases. Everyone will still have the opportunity to bring their evidence and testimony, their arguments -- both at the contested case level and at the Supreme Court."

As the bill is written, if justices determine the state agency's decision was "procedurally and substantively" decided correctly, then the Supreme Court will not accept the appeal and the administrator's ruling will stand. If they're uncertain, it will take up the case.

Opponents of the measure say it could take away key protections from citizens and could bog down the state Supreme Court.

"What are we going to ultimately create at the Supreme Court level?"said Moses Haia III, the Executive Director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. "If it's going to create this significant backlog, then I don't think we're really taking care of the problem that we're attempting to by this bill."

Lawmakers say removing the lower courts from the equation doesn't change the result, just the timing.

"One of the tried and true methods of slowing down or killing a lawsuit is just to delay and delay and delay - this is going to make that harder to do. So if you are opposed to something and you're trying to delay and delay and delay, you're not going to be happy -- but if you just want the judicial system to work expeditiously and get a result, you'll be happy," said House Judiciary committee Chair Karl Rhoads, (D-Kalihi, Palama, Iwilei, Chinatown).

Lawmakers say the Supreme Court has the lowest caseload in the state, but to make sure this legislation doesn't flood justices and create a backlog, they've scheduled the bill to be re-evaluated in three years.

The measure still must pass a third and final reading in both the House and Senate.

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