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Hawaii Supreme Court Makes History With Remote Arguments

Hokuao Pellegrino

WAILUKU, Hawaii — The Hawaii Supreme Court heard arguments delivered remotely for the first time in the court's history in a case involving a dispute over water on Maui.

Five justices and four attorneys participated from separate locations Tuesday because of health restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, The Maui News reported.

The argument was streamed live on the Hawaii judiciary’s YouTube channel, with a counter indicating more than 450 people watched the proceedings.

The session was recessed shortly after beginning while technicians restored Justice Richard Pollack’s internet connection.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald reminded justices and attorneys several times to “unmute your mike” before speaking.

The justices heard arguments in the case of Carmichael v. Board of Land and Natural Resources, which involves a decades-long dispute over water flowing from the East Maui mountains.

Attorneys argued over whether invalidating state water diversion permits in East Maui could result in a water shortage for the system serving 35,000 residents, businesses and farms.

Maui County Deputy Corporation Counsel Caleb Rowe said nearly two-thirds of the region’s average consumption of 11.4 million gallons (43.1 million liters) per day is diverted from streams in areas covered by four revocable water permits issued to Alexander & Baldwin LLC and its subsidiary, East Maui Irrigation Co.

Summer Sylva, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., argued the county could ask a lower court for an exemption if an injunction was granted to stop Alexander & Baldwin from diverting up to 450 million gallons (1.7 billion litres) per day through the permits.

She said the diversions over 52 square miles (135 square kilometers) of mostly conservation state land occurred in violation of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.

Recktenwald said the court would take the case under advisement.

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