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Family Court Judge on Leave; Reason Still Unknown

October 18, 2019, 4:00 PM HST
* Updated October 22, 4:42 PM
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Per diem judges have been filling in for a Hilo Family Court judge for almost a year and no one involved with the court system seems to know why.

Judge Dakota KM Frenzto know why.

Judge Dakota KM Frenz, appointed to Family Court in October of 2016, has been on paid leave since December of 2018. Hawai‘i County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said no one in his office, including him, knows what’s going on.

Since Frenz left the bench, the court has been covered by part-time judges known as per diem judges. These judges have covered 174 days in Frenz’s courtroom, Hawai‘i State Judiciary officials confirmed Thursday.

Attorneys are feeling the impacts of Frenz’s absence. Attorney Brit Barker said the inconsistency is cluttering the system.

Formerly with the prosecutor’s office, Barker is now a private attorney who accepted a contract with the Hawai‘i State Judiciary to appear as guardian ad litem or counsel for parents in family court civil cases involving children in foster custody.

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Since she’s taken up the caseload over the summer, Barker said Frenz’s courtroom has been cycling through three different per diem judges.

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“Having consistency is key to try and expeditiously act while considering the facts of the case, which are more than just what is written in the file,” Barker said. “To me, a per diem judge is there to maintain status quo until (the permanent) judge comes back.”

Barker thinks the per diem judges are doing a great job in handling the cases.

Jeffrey Hawk was a per diem judge who was sitting in on most of Frenz’s cases. However, in August, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald appointed him to District Court.

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A judge’s prolonged involvement in a case allows them to see its progression or digression. The ultimate goal, Barker said, is to unite families and to do what’s in the best interest of the child.

“When situations like this arise, where an appointed Judge is out for an extended period of time, it does not make it easy on the per diem judges that are filling in,” Barker said. “This is what may clutter the system, as the per diem’s are now trying to do the job of the sitting judge without the same kind of inside knowledge to the cases.”

Attorneys understand that the Judiciary is following their procedure to deal with the situation. Barker added she thinks many are surprised it is taking as long as it is but respects the process.

Deputy Prosecutor Lucas Burns prosecutes criminal cases in family court. From the criminal side of things, Burns thinks things are going fairly smoothly.

“From a standpoint of the criminal calendar, the cases have been moving along like normal,” he said. “I can’t speak to the civil side of things.”

Like Barker, Burns is appearing before different per diem judges on cases. However, the attorney said the per diem judges are fully qualified. While it would be nice to have Frenz back on the bench, Burns said her absence hasn’t made a huge difference in the criminal calendar.

By law, per diem judges are paid for each day worked. The rate is based on a monthly rate of compensation paid to a district court judge.

The given salary for District and Family Court judges is set by the Hawai‘i Commission of Salaries at $195,276. The daily rate for per diem judges is approximately $775.

Jan Kagehiro, a spokeswoman for the Hawai‘i State Judiciary, explained in an email that when judges aren’t available, the judiciary uses either full-time or per diem judges to cover their cases.

“In the present situation, we are using both to ensure that cases in Hilo Family Court are handled responsibly and timely,” Kagehiro stated.

District Court judicial appointments are for six years. Frenz’s term is up in October of 2022.

“The Chief Justice and the Judiciary are unable to provide any further response at this time,” Kagehiro stated Thursday in an email when asked about the details surrounding Frenz’s absence.

Several attempts to reach Judge Frenz over the course of two days were unsuccessful.

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