Questions surface about judges’ gift disclosures

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When Margaret Masunaga was sworn in last year as a district court judge in Kona, she received a number of gifts from well-wishers, ranging from lei to a designer handbag.


When Margaret Masunaga was sworn in last year as a district court judge in Kona, she received a number of gifts from well-wishers, ranging from lei to a designer handbag.

Like the other nine Big Island judges, Masunaga claimed no gifts on her annual financial disclosure filed last month. It’s not known who gave Masunaga the Kate Spade handbag/satchel or whether she was required to declare it or other gifts she received, as Masunaga did not respond to detailed messages left on her cellphone and office phone Monday and Tuesday.

Giving gifts to judges can be a tricky issue, especially for attorneys.

Patricia Mau-Shimizu, executive director of the Hawaii State Bar Association, said the state bar doesn’t have a policy on gift giving, as it is covered under the judiciary’s rules. She spoke about gifts in general, and not about any specific case.

“It’s really from the judges’ perspective what they can and cannot accept,” Mau-Shimizu said.

She said the Bar Association does give each retiring judge a koa bowl.

“We just give them on the way out,” she said. “We don’t want to put them in some kind of problem.”

Whether judges can accept gifts and when they must publicly disclose them are spelled out in the Rules of the Supreme Court, which under the Hawaii state Constitution have the force and effect of law.

The rules basically allow gifts to be received without disclosure from individuals such as family members and business partners where a judge would normally recuse himself or herself anyway if a case were to appear on his or her docket.

Gifts of any value from anyone, including lawyers, who has come or is likely to come before the judge, or whose interests have come or are likely to come before the judge, must be disclosed. Gifts from someone who is not likely to come before the judge or whose interests aren’t likely to come before the judge must be reported if their value is over $200.

Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, at Masunaga’s Dec. 2 swearing-in, told Masunaga the Kate Spade satchel would be handy to ferry briefs to and from work, according to a Dec. 6 report on the Hawaii 24/7 news blog.

Masunaga’s secretary Naomi Inouye referred questions to Lani Ng, court administrator for court operations in Kona. She said Chief Judge Ronald Ibarra is very strict about gifts for court staff, and even aloha gifts of food during the holidays are refused.

“We don’t accept anything. Every court is aware of that policy,” Ng said. “Anything. Even a box of donuts. We tell the courier to take it back.”

Recktenwald had appointed Masunaga for the position left vacant when District Court Judge Joseph Florendo retired last year. She was among six finalists the judiciary named to replace Florendo, Hawaii Island’s longest-serving full-time judge. She became a district judge upon her confirmation Oct. 23 by the state Senate in a special session.

Masunaga, a former Hawaii County deputy corporation counsel and former deputy county planning director, became a controversial nomination after the Hawaii State Bar Association deemed her unqualified to be a District Court judge. Questions surrounded her legal knowledge, professional experience and ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the position.


Numerous public officials and residents rushed to her defense, saying Masunaga was not only fit for the bench, but also possessed a passion for the community, as evident by her volunteerism, leadership and tireless service. About 70 people attended her swearing-in ceremony.

The ceremony marked a highlight of a law career that started 27 years ago for Masunaga. Becoming a judge was something she wanted at a young age. The internment of her parents during World War II provided a strong motivation to promote justice. Masunaga applied for a judgeship six times since 1994.

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