LIHUE — It’s not every day that the state’s highest court makes its way to Kauai.
In fact, legal experts say, it has never happened before.
That will change on Thursday when the five sitting state Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments in a nearly four-year-old case that has pit the County of Kauai and Kauai Police Department against the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO), which represents unionized county police employees.
And they will do it at the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center before hundreds of local students.
Hawaii State Judiciary spokesman Andrew Laurence said the unprecedented decision is part of a nearly three-year-long Courts in the Community educational outreach program. The goal, he said, is for people outside the legal community, especially high school students, to see the legal process in action.
“We try to take it out on the road as much as possible, and the purpose is to help the public understand how the courts work and their role in a democratic society,” Laurence said.
At issue, in the case to be heard Thursday, is whether County of Kauai officials or a collective bargaining arbitrator overstepped their authority when it came time to discuss the promotion of three Kauai Police Department officers.
Shelly Rodrigues, James Rodriguez, and Shane Sokei were not selected for a promotion to sergeant after they passed a written test and were administered an oral interview by then acting police chief Clayton Arinaga.
SHOPO officials later appealed the decision, calling the promotion process “subjective, arbitrary and capricious,” heavily dependent on an inconsistent oral interview exam and not based on merit, ability, or fair standards, according to court documents. They requested that the trio be promoted and have all salary and other benefits, rights and privileges be given retroactively.
An arbitrator, Larry Cundiff Sr., agreed with SHOPO and ordered that the promotions be made and retroactive benefits and salaries be applied after determining that KPD officials violated specific sections in collective bargaining agreements. He also recommended that KPD and SHOPO “meet to review, discuss and implement measures to improve the promotion process,” court documents show.
County officials, in turn, filed a motion with the state appellate court to declare arbitration findings moot, arguing that Cundiff “promoted the three officers based on his own criteria, exceeded his authority as arbitrator, and the remedial promotion violated public policy by encroaching on management’s right to promote.”
The appellate court in 2009, partially granted and denied the county’s request by confirming that “the grievances were properly before the arbitrator and within his jurisdiction and authority, and remanded for rehearing on the issue of remedy.”
Cundiff, however, re-issued his original decision, ordering back pay and benefits be applied retroactively for the three officers.
County officials, however, disputed the ruling before the state appellate court, arguing that Cundiff exceeded his authority under collective bargaining agreements and “could not mandate promotion as a remedy.”
The state appellate court later confirmed Cundiff’s findings and decisions except for the promotional remedies, which they ruled, “were in excess of the arbitrator’s authority under the collective bargaining agreement.”
SHOPO officials in 2010 later issued an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“If the Supreme Court sustains Kauai’s appeal, it will change the dynamics that affect collective bargaining agreements in respect to an arbitrator being the neutral party that represents the final and binding decision between both parties in an arbitration case,” SHOPO President Tenari Maafala said. “It’s not just SHOPO that will be affected — all of the other labor organizations that use this process will be affected for sure.”
County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask declined to comment.
The legal proceedings this week will mark only the sixth time that the state’s court of last resort has held oral arguments outside of their Honolulu courthouse as a part of the program. Last year, only two oral arguments were held at Mililani High School on Oahu and Kealakehe High School on the Big Island.
“They were just on the Big Island, so they’ve been moving around, and I think it’s really great that they’re letting everyone see how they work,” Hanalei-based attorney Teresa “Teri” Tico said. “It’s kind of a mystery how the courts work, so it’s nice to see them in action so it’s not a mystery anymore.”
Joseph Cassler, who teaches American government and modern Hawaiian history at Kauai High School, said he and his students have been preparing for Thursday’s interactive lesson for about a month and a half by analyzing the Kauai case and listening to lectures from Hawaii State Bar Association and Kauai Bar Association attorneys about the case.
About 120 to 130 students from Kauai High School will attend the high court proceedings.
“I think the students don’t realize that a lot of these hearings are open to the public,” Cassler said. “For a lot of these students, it’s going to be their only opportunity to see such a high-level court in action, so it’s really neat that they’re able to do that.”
Island School social studies teacher Lauren Calhoun agreed and said it’s a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the 40 high students who will be attending from her school. Students just completed a trimester-long American government class.
“It’s always best for students to be able to experience the real life application of what’s in the text book,” she said.
While arguments will take place 10 to 11 a.m. on Thursday, a decision isn’t expected for months.