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High court hears arguments on county records case

Updated: 
May 2, 2014 - 9:16am

Attorneys help students understand Hawaii Supreme Court’s proceedings

Shayli Nakamoto had tried her hand at making oral arguments in a case that was headed to the Hawaii Supreme Court, but the Konawaena High School junior was still surprised at what the arguments sounded like during the official hearing Tuesday.

"In our court, it was simple questions that were easily answered," Nakamoto said.

Tuesday’s hearing featured the state’s five Supreme Court justices asking far more complicated questions, Nakamoto said.

"If I were in their situation, I wouldn’t know what to do," Nakamoto said, after the arguments in the Kealakehe High School gym wrapped up.

Classmate Joseph Paguyo, also a junior, said he was surprised by the differences, too.

"It was more serious than I realized," Paguyo said.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said those are just some of the lessons he hoped the high schoolers — about 550 from at least six West Hawaii schools — and members of the public at the hearing learned.

"This is what lawyers do, answer questions, think on their feet," Recktenwald said to a handful of students outside of the gym after the hearing concluded. "You have to be articulate, be a good speaker, have integrity and be careful about what you say."

The attorneys were able to answer the justices’ questions during the hourlong session. Lawyers need to "do their homework" in advance of hearings, Recktenwald said.

Tuesday’s visit was the first for the Supreme Court in West Hawaii, Recktenwald said.

"It’s critical for us to be out in parts of the state we haven’t visited," he said. "It’s very significant, not just for the students, but the community."

Several dozen members of the public turned out for the event.

Prior to the visit, members of the West Hawaii Bar Association were assigned to different schools, where the attorneys met with students and reviewed the case, a civil dispute between a Hawaii County landowner and the Hawaii County Planning Department. Recktenwald said that gave students a chance to understand the arguments attorneys made, letting the students "watch something and have it mean something."

Recktenwald said he was especially appreciative of those attorneys for doing that work, which created a "special level of excitement" for the attorneys.

He said he hoped the public convening of court would show the public that the state’s justice system "is a system that has integrity and is fair to everyone."

More than a decade after Geoffrey Molfino bought — and sold — a 49-acre parcel of Hawaii Island land, the case he brought against the county for allegedly failing to maintain accurate records was heard before the state’s highest court.

In an unusual move — for the first time on record — the Supreme Court justices met in West Hawaii, in a courtroom convened in the Kealakehe High School gym, to allow Molfino’s attorney, Peter Esser, and Deputy Corporation Counsel Laureen Martin to make their oral arguments.

The essence of the case, according to arguments by Esser and Martin, as well as the court’s own summary, is whether the county has a legal obligation to maintain records. A 3rd Circuit Court judge in Hilo and the state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals said no. Molfino has appealed those decisions.

Martin, under questioning by Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna and Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, maintained the county’s position that the county has no legal duty to preserve any records, despite provisions to do just that in the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act.

“What about public health and safety,” Recktenwald asked, offering an example of records that show a house is situated in a flood plain. “There’s no duty (to preserve records) in that?”

That’s right, Martin said.

“I don’t think you can pick and choose,” she said.

Martin argued — and the lower courts previously agreed — that creating a legal duty to preserve records, even ones the county makes available to the public for review, opens the county up to too much liability.

McKenna also raised questions about whether the Legislature provided the county and other government entities immunity in the UIPA statutes.

“Hasn’t the Legislature drawn that balance?” she asked.

The discussion then went to whether Molfino could have gotten the information he sought — in this case it was about the number of lots permitted on the parcel and Yuen’s denial of a subdivision he later approved, because new documents were discovered showing the lot had already been divided — from another source.

Martin also said if the court started making decisions regrading how the executive branch should be keeping records, it would be treading on the executive branch’s duties. She also addressed the lengthy time period over which the situation and case have continued.

“This case has been pending for several years,” Martin said, and questioned whether ruling on just one issue and returning the case to a lower court would be a good use of the court’s, plaintiff’s and county’s time.

Esser continued his argument Tuesday noting that he wasn’t asking the county to keep perfect records, and that former Planning Director Christopher Yuen admitted to having a procedure by which records were supposed to be kept.

“I never used the word perfect,” Esser said, adding he has argued that the county should take “reasonable care” to maintain records. “There is record of evidence to support negligence and therefore summary judgment was inappropriate.”

Esser and several justices discussed at length the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act, which includes provisions requiring the state to preserve records.

Not keeping those records — or investigating when county officials discovered the record was incomplete — was the basis for bringing the negligence suit, Esser said.

The court will issue its ruling at a later date.