Judges recuse themselves from Hawaii mayor’s theft case

Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi (center)

Update: An Oahu judge in First Circuit Court has been selected to preside over this case. View the full story here.

Nine judges have filed to disqualify or recuse themselves from presiding over a theft case against Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi.

His trial is set for July.

Court documents reveal certificates of disqualification have been filed by the following judges with the Third Circuit Court: Greg Nakamura, Glenn Hara, Harry Freitas, Lloyd Van De Car, Henry Nakamoto, Ronald Ibarra, Melvin Fujino, and Margaret Masunaga.

Judge Barbara Takase will end her term on May 25, before the case is heard.

That leaves one more judge in the circuit: Aley K. Auna Jr. We reached out to see if he plans to file a certificate but have not heard back. [Update on April 5, 2016: The Hawaii State Judiciary confirms Auna has also recused himself.]

Kenoi pleaded not guilty in court last week to eight counts including theft, tampering with a government record, and false swearing over his alleged pCard misuse.

He previously admitted to using his pCard on personal items such as $1,200 for a surfboard and nearly $900 at a Honolulu hostess bar, though none of these charges were mentioned in the indictment. Statements show he also spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel, meals, and drinks.

“Could there be a possibility that there is no judge who wants to hear this case?” KHON2 asked Ken Lawson, a criminal law professor at the University of Hawaii.

“There will be a judge. I’ve never seen that happen,” he replied. “Justice has to give the appearance that justice is being done. Sometimes the only way to do that, although these judges may not have a personal interest in it, is just to say you know what, I don’t want to be accused wrongly of showing a bias toward either side, so it’s best that I come out of the case.

“In a case like this when you are talking about a mayor or someone in high public office, even another judge that may be charged with a crime, it’s not unusual to see that the whole bench — when I say the bench, I mean the entire Circuit Court or District Court — and another judge is flown in,” Lawson continued.

If all Third Circuit judges recuse themselves, then the case would go to a judge in another court.

A Hawaii State Judiciary spokesperson says the case would still be heard at Hilo Circuit Court.

We reached out to the attorney general’s office, but were told they don’t want to comment on what the judiciary is doing. We have also not heard from Kenoi’s attorney.

Hawaii Revised Statues

HRS §601-7: Disqualification of judge; relationship, pecuniary interest, previous judgment, bias or prejudice.

(b) Any judge may disqualify oneself by filing with the clerk of the court of which the judge is a judge a certificate that the judge deems oneself unable for any reason to preside with absolute impartiality in the pending suit or action.

Revised Code of Judicial Conduct

Rule 2.11: Disqualification or recusal.

(a) Subject to the rule of necessity, a judge shall disqualify or recuse himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality* might reasonably be questioned…

*[1] Under Rule 2.11(a), a judge is disqualified or recused whenever the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, regardless of whether any of the specific provisions of Rules 2.11(a)(1) through (6) apply.

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