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Hawaii lawmakers criticize Sessions’ island judge remarks

April 21, 2017 - 8:35am

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s Democratic lawmakers on Thursday criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he expressed amazement on a radio show that a “judge sitting on an island in the Pacific” could stop the president’s travel ban.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono responded by trying to give Sessions a civics lesson on Twitter, saying Hawaii has been a U.S. state for 58 years.

The senator said later in a telephone interview the remarks showed a lack of awareness about the separation of powers between the judiciary and executive branches.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson last month blocked President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and temporarily halting the U.S. refugee program. The Trump Administration appealed the ruling.

Sessions told the “Mark Levin Show” he’s confident the president will prevail with his administration’s appeal of Watson’s travel ban ruling.

“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power,” Sessions said.

Hirono also said Sessions’ remarks suggested he is prejudiced against Hawaii.

“Why isn’t a federal judge from Hawaii as able as any other judge from anywhere to issue rulings?” Hirono asked.

She told Session on Twitter “we won’t succumb to your dog whistle politics.”

Both Hirono and Sen. Brian Schatz emphasized that Sessions voted as a senator to confirm Watson as a judge.

Schatz chided Sessions more on Twitter by telling him the island where Watson made the ruling is named Oahu.

“It’s my home. Have some respect,” he said.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in an email that Sessions was questioning one judge’s ability to block the president’s executive order for the travel ban.

“Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific — a beautiful one where the Attorney General’s granddaughter was born,” Prior said. “The point, however, is that there is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the president’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”

Douglas Chin, Hawaii’s attorney general, said in a statement it was disappointing Sessions doesn’t acknowledge that the federal courts are “co-equal partners with Congress and the president.”

A clerk for the U.S. District Court in Hawaii said Watson declined to comment.

It wasn’t just lawmakers and officials who took exception to the comment.

In Kailua-Kona, some residents said Sessions’ comments reflected the administration’s attitude toward the state.

“Yes, we are in the middle of the Pacific, but I just have to laugh,” said South Kona resident Leilani Patterson. “Because he doesn’t know how we are here … He makes it sound like we are not part of the United States.”

Patterson suggested that the attitude comes from former President Barack Obama’s connection to the state and a desire to undo much of the past president’s legacy.

Kona resident Robert Hand said the remarks were “goofy” and “troubled.”

Regarding the travel ban itself, he said current vetting procedures are pretty solid.

“They’re vetting them pretty carefully already,” he said, adding that the U.S. has “always been a country to welcome immigrants.”

“We welcome them,” he said. “I’m not about to argue with that.”

But not everyone believed the remarks were inappropriate.

“The attorney general could say anything,” said Mila Barrett. “He’s just frustrated. It’s an emotional response, I think.”

Barrett, who said she supports the travel restrictions, said she understands why some people might take offense to the attorney general’s comments, but that “it all depends on how you’re looking at it.”

“When you’re a public figure and your words are going to be open like that, you’ve got to be careful what you’re saying,” she said. “I think it’s not a big deal with what the attorney general says.”

West Hawaii Today reporter Cameron Miculka contributed to this report.

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