Judge dismisses lawsuit over governor’s PUC appointment

Thomas Gorak

Gov. David Ige’s appointee to the Public Utilities Commission can stay after a judge dismissed counts in a lawsuit that called the action illegal.

Always Investigating has also been following this since former staff attorney Thomas Gorak was named a commissioner earlier this summer.

It happened just before the Hawaiian Electric-NextEra Energy ruling, replacing a man whose term expired.

Former PUC chairwoman Hermina Morita sued, calling the move illegal because it was done when the Senate was not in session for a confirmation process, and because the commissioner the governor wanted to replace had not stepped down.

State statute says utility commissioners stay on as holdovers meanwhile.

“If somebody’s dead, there’s a vacancy. If somebody resigns, there’s a vacancy. But if somebody gets to serve until their successor is appointed and qualified, there’s no vacancy,” Mark Bennett, Morita’s attorney, argued in court Thursday. “This is the first time ever any governor has ever done this.”

“During the time the Senate is not in session, they don’t have the ability or the right to encroach upon the governor’s power, which he’s given a considerable amount of power in our state constitution,” said deputy attorney general John Molay.

The state told the court the constitution prevails over utility-specific statutes, making Gorak’s appointment valid, and contend Senate confirmation is not needed.

The judge ruled a vacancy occurred when the commissioner’s term expired, and the governor then had the constitutional right to name a replacement.

“We are disappointed in the ruling and are considering next steps, including a possible appeal,” Bennett said.

“The interim appointments authority is part of Hawaii’s constitution,” Attorney General Doug Chin said. “Today’s ruling affirms Governor Ige’s exercise of that authority.”

“I am very happy there is no longer the issue of an action hanging over our heads. We can move on,” said PUC chairman Randy Iwase. “We are all very pleased the court came to the right decision. We have the right man in the job.”

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