Law and order: Recently appointed female judge presides over South Kohala court cases

  • District Family Court Judge Mahilani Hiatt was sworn in Aug. 31. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — At the South Kohala Court House in Waimea, anywhere between four and 120 cases can be on the docket on a given day.

“In District Court, some people are appearing for the first time for arraignment and plea, pretrial conference or proof of compliance. On Thursday, Family Court trial days, it’s more like four to six cases, and other days it can be around 15,” Judge Mahilani Hiatt said, who was sworn in Aug. 31 as the new District Family Court Judge, Third Circuit.

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Before assuming this position, she was a per diem judge, represented plaintiffs and defendants as a lawyer for 25 years and even did some independent investigation work for a time.

Presiding over district and family cases for the South Kohala District, Judge Hiatt handles everything from traffic and criminal cases — including petty misdemeanors — to felonies with preliminary hearings on probable cause before they head to Circuit Court. Regular claims, small claims, temporary restraining orders, adoptions, child welfare, foster, divorce, juvenile criminal and drug cases are also tried in Waimea. Marriage ceremonies can even be performed in Judge Hiatt’s chambers.

Born and raised on Oahu, Judge Hiatt graduated from William S. Richardson School of Law at University of Hawaii at Manoa, and was admitted to the Hawaii State Bar in 1993.

She met her husband while working as an associate attorney at Bays Deaver Hiatt Lung &Rose in Honolulu. After he opened an office in Waimea, she followed him to the Big Island. From 2010 to 2018, they worked together at their own firm, Hiatt &Hiatt, where she specialized in commercial litigation and employment law.

Judge Hiatt served as a per diem judge — a part-time judge appointed by the chief justice on an as-needed basis — in the District Court and Family Court beginning in July 2017, after encouragement from her husband and friends.

“He thought I would be a good judge,” she explained. “I said, ‘Are you crazy? I don’t have enough experience to do that. How could I ever be a judge?’ He planted the seed and at the same time some of my close girlfriends said I should apply too.”

Now-retired Judge Ronald Ibarra gave her the final push to apply for the position.

“He’s a legend,” Judge Hiatt said.

For her first six months as a per diem judge, she worked primarily at District Court in Hilo. Judge Hiatt was then moved to the Waimea courthouse in January.

“It was so hard and challenging, and I loved it,” she said. “I found it to be so fulfilling, so I decided when the position became open for the family court judge I would apply.”

The application process was arduous. After the position was posted, Hiatt submitted an extensive application to the Judicial Selection Commission. Following the first interview, she was selected for an interview with Chief Justice Recktenwald of the Supreme Court of Hawaii. She was then required, like all selected, to submit another application to him, after which she went before the Hawaii State Bar Association where they determined she was qualified, following a set of interviews. Next, she went before the Judiciary Committee of the State Senate, after which they voted and she proceeded to the full Senate.

“It was a whirlwind, but no issues came up,” Judge Hiatt said. “When you meet with some of the senators they ask if there’s anything in your background you want to tell them, even going back to high school or before. It’s quite a thorough process.”

She interacts with a wide variety of county employees daily.

“I work with clerks, maintenance staff, sheriffs and security officers at the courthouse. I’m so proud to be a part of the team,” Judge Hiatt said. “They’re hard-working, decent people with a lot of integrity.”

In her courtroom, she wants justice for all.

“I really believe in creating an environment where people aren’t scared to come to court or nervous about what’s going to happen, that they have an understanding of how the process works, that they feel comfortable asking questions and understand what resources are available to them,” Judge Hiatt explained. “It’s truly a ‘people’s court.’”

“With people who may have done something bad, I try to respect the fact that they’re there and standing in front of me,” she said. “If I have to sentence them, I look them in the face and explain why I have to send them to jail, but I feel everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” she added.

Both a settlement and a trial judge, she suggests mediation whenever possible.

“It works in some family situations, civil or small claims,” Judge Hiatt said.

For certain cases, people meet in her chambers.

“There was a case today set for trial, but we worked out the issue in my chambers,” Judge Hiatt said. “Sometimes I meet with the public defender prosecutor or private counsel there before court.”

In addition, police come to her chambers asking her to sign off on search warrants, arrest warrants or to set bail.

“I like that because I feel like I’m participating in a part of the process in which we’re trying to enforce laws that are important to our community,” Judge Hiatt said. “If there’s not probable cause, my job too is to say, ‘I’m sorry I can’t sign this.’ Judges really have a lot of responsibility.”

Domestic abuse cases cross Judge Hiatt’s desk regularly.

“I recognize that domestic abuse is a serious issue in our community and I am dedicated to doing what I can as a judge to promptly address and resolve this complex matter, which has far- reaching and lasting impacts on both children and adults,” she said. “I believe judges are public servants — that is certainly how I view myself. I’m very honored to be a part of a dedicated group that seeks to advance the mission of the Judiciary.”

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Judge Hiatt plans to host an informational session open to the public at 3 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Waimea courthouse to address common issues she sees in her courtroom.

“As an example, many of the cases that come in front of me in District Court involve driver’s licenses – in particular restricted licenses – which is something the court can grant if the applicant meets the requirements,” she said. “This type of license allows the applicant, who has a fine balance and so can’t obtain a regular license, to have a restricted license to drive to and from work and thus make money to live and pay off their fines.”