WASHINGTON — Hawaii’s elected officials are up in arms over a remark by Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the judge who halted President Trump’s travel ban in March.
“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 on April 18 in an interview with syndicated radio talk show host Mark Levin.
The Department of Justice is appealing Judge Derrick Watson’s order temporarily blocking the administration’s ban on new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and temporarily halting the U.S. refugee program.
In a subsequent interview with Fox News, Sessions said, “We’ve got about 800 federal judges. One, protected perhaps by the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals], has stopped an executive order by the president of the United States that I believe is constitutional and that I believe is explicitly approved by statutory law, so the process will go forward [and]appeals will be held.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) tweeted, “Hey Jeff Sessions, this #IslandinthePacific has been the 50th state for going on 58 years. And we won’t succumb to your dog whistle politics. Hawaii was built on the strength of diversity and immigrant experiences — including my own. Jeff Sessions’ comments are ignorant and dangerous.”
Hirono added in a Facebook post, “The suggestion that being from Hawaii somehow disqualifies Judge Watson from performing his constitutional duty is dangerous, ignorant, and prejudiced. I am frankly dumbfounded that our nation’s top lawyer would attack our independent judiciary. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is just the latest in the Trump Administration’s attacks against the very tenets of our Constitution and democracy.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted, “Mr. Attorney General: You voted for that judge. And that island is called Oahu. It’s my home. Have some respect.”
Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin said in a statement, “President Trump previously called a federal judge in California a so-called judge. Now U.S. Attorney General Sessions appears to dismiss a federal judge in Hawaii as just a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific.
“Our Constitution created a separation of powers in the United States for a reason. Our federal courts, established under Article III of the Constitution, are co-equal partners with Congress and the president. It is disappointing AG Sessions does not acknowledge that.”
The Department of Justice defended Sessions in a tweet: “Hawaii is, in fact, an island in the Pacific — a beautiful one where the attorney general’s granddaughter was born. 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.”
Sessions told Fox News that he does not regret his remark and that “nobody has a sense of humor anymore.”
“I Am a Proud American”
Hirono gave a more detailed response to Sessions in an opinion piece posted by CNN on April 21:
“Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, appears to need a reminder: Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959. I’m happy to tell him where I was when Hawaii became a state. I was in sixth grade at Koko Head Elementary School in Honolulu, and was chosen to pin the 50th star on the American flag in front of my teachers and classmates at a special assembly to celebrate statehood.
“Like my fellow citizens in Hawaii, I am a proud American. This is why Sessions’ ignorant comments about U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson from Hawaii were so insulting and prejudiced.
“In a discussion of President Donald Trump’s executive order that banned travelers from several Muslim-majority countries — an order that Watson blocked — Sessions told an interviewer, ‘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.’
“I would never criticize a judge just because he or she presides in another state, including Alabama. Sessions’ Alabamans would be outraged if I did. Yet that’s exactly what the attorney general did.
“These kinds of comments reflect badly on him and the Trump Administration. Does he think federal judges in Hawaii don’t know the law, don’t have the training (by the way, Watson graduated from Harvard Law School), or don’t understand their constitutional responsibilities?
“In spite of the Justice Department’s attempt to walk back the attorney general’s comments, his words reflect this administration’s discriminatory attitude. While outrageous comments from the president and members of his administration are all too common, I expect the top law enforcement officer to remember that all federal judges are confirmed by the US Senate, and to understand the independent role of the judiciary.
“Watson was indeed unanimously confirmed by the Senate — including by Sessions, then a senator.
“Sadly, we can expect more of this outrageous rhetoric from the Trump Administration. But it cannot be the accepted norm. When this administration resorts to alternative facts or makes comments that compound division in our country rather than bring us together, we must challenge it.
“In Trump and Sessions’ vision of America, diversity is a weakness, not a strength. Hawaii is a living reminder that they are dead wrong.
“Hawaii — the Aloha State — is built on the strength of its multicultural society, from our indigenous Native Hawaiian people to the many immigrants that followed.
“It is the home to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, segregated Japanese American units that fought prejudice at home and served the United States during World War II.
“Hawaii was the first state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and it’s the birthplace of my friend Patsy Mink, who authored Title IX, which brought equal education opportunities to girls and women nationwide. It elected the first governors of Japanese, Native Hawaiian and Filipino ancestry.
“And when he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, Derrick Kahala Watson became just the fourth Native Hawaiian federal judge in the history of the United States.
“My path to the U.S. Senate was improbable, but the same immigrant story is shared by so many in my home state and across the country.
“My mom had fled an abusive marriage in Japan to bring my brothers and me to Hawaii and the United States. Those early years, we struggled to make ends meet. But surrounded by a diverse and welcoming community, I learned to speak English in public schools and dreamed of a better life for families such as ours.
“As a senator representing Hawaii, a state that stands for diversity and inclusion, I am determined to fight this administration’s prejudicial words and actions. We must stand up for our independent judiciary and the important role it plays in defending our democracy.
“There are fights worth fighting. This is one of them.”