Jill Otake – Nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii

Jill Otake, the federal prosecutor nominated by Trump to a district court seat in Hawaii, is an unusual nominee for two reasons.  First, the Trump Administration has foregone appointing a Republican and has instead chosen a candidate recommended by Hawaii’s Democratic senators to a Democratic President.  Second, while Otake is a native of Hawaii, she has spent almost all of her legal career practicing, not in her home state, but in Washington.

Background

Jill Aiko Otake was born in Honolulu on October 3, 1973.  Otake received her B.S. cum laude from Georgetown University in 1995 and her J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 1998.[1]  After graduating, Otake joined the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, serving as a prosecutor in the metro Seattle area.

In 2001, Otake returned to Hawaii to clerk for Justice Simeon Acoba on the Hawaii Supreme Court.[2]  She returned to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office after her clerkship.  In 2005, Otake became a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington, working as an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA).  In 2011, Otake became the Deputy Supervisor of the Terrorism and Violent Crimes Unit and in 2013, she became the Co-Supervisor for the General Crimes Unit.[3]

In 2014, Otake moved to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Hawaii.[4]  In 2016, she was named Deputy Chief of the Special Crimes Section and, since 2017, she has served as Acting Chief of the Section.[5]

History of the Seat

Otake has been nominated for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii.  This seat opened when Judge Susan Oki Mollway moved to senior status on November 6, 2015.  In May 2015, Otake interviewed with a Commission formed by Hawaii Senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, both Democrats.[6]  After interviews with Hirono and Schatz, Otake was one of three candidates recommended by the senators to the Obama Administration.[7]  However, the Obama Administration chose to nominate Clare Connors, another recommended candidate, on September 8, 2015.[8]  While Connors received a hearing in January 2016, and was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, she never received a floor vote.

In April 2017, Otake was contacted by the Trump Administration to gauge her interest in a federal judgeship.[9]  After interviewing with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice, Otake was formally nominated on December 20, 2017.  Otake has the strong support of Hirono and Schatz.[10]

Legal Experience

Otake has spent her entire legal career as a prosecutor, working on the state level between 1998 and 2005, and on the federal level since 2005.[11]  Over the course of her career, Otake tried approximately 40 cases to verdict, including as lead counsel in approximately 15.[12]  As a state prosecutor, Otake not only handled criminal trials, but also worked in a supervisory capacity over other prosecutors.[13]

As a federal prosecutor in Washington, Otake initially worked in the General Crimes Unit but later joined the Terrorism and Violent Crimes Unit, becoming a Deputy Supervisor in 2011 under U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan.[14]  While there, Otake helped prosecute members of the Sovereign Assemblies, an anti-government group that had set up its own law enforcement arm and worked to commit tax fraud in an effort to cheat the U.S. Government.[15]

After moving to Hawaii in 2014, Otake handled a variety of cases, including civil rights violations, firearms offenses, and human trafficking.[16]  Early in her tenure, Otake led the prosecution of eighteen members of a prison gang engaged in violence, smuggling, and fraud.[17]  She also prosecuted a prison guard who had assisted in smuggling methamphetamines into correctional facilities.[18]

Overall Assessment

Nominated by Trump and supported by her Democratic home state senators, Otake should sail to confirmation.  While questions can be raised as to Otake’s ties to the Hawaii legal community (she had practiced there for approximately a year before applying for a federal judgeship), with Hawaii senators on board, it is unlikely that others will raise them.

On the bench, Otake is likely to be familiar with the intricacies of sentencing and criminal law, given her long tenure as a prosecutor.  While she lacks the commensurate civil experience, focusing one’s legal career on either criminal or civil law has not barred previous nominees, and, as such, should not disqualify Otake.  As such, Hawaii should expect Otake on the bench this year, restoring a full bench.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Jill Otake: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] See id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 26-27.

[7] Shiwani Johnson, Former Hawaii Attorney General Among 3 Nominees for U.S. District Court Opening in Honolulu, Pacific Business News, June 17, 2015, https://www.bizjournals.com/pacific/blog/morning_call/2015/06/former-hawaii-attorney-general-among-3-nominees.html.  

[8] Press Release, White House, President Obama Nominates Three to Serve on the United States District Courts, Sept. 8, 2015 (on file at https://obamawhitehousearchives.gov).

[9] See Otake, supra n. 1 at 27.

[10] Press Release, Office of Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hirono & Schatz Announce Nomination of Jill Otake to U.S. District Court, Dec. 20, 2017 (on file at hirono.senate.gov).

[11] See Otake, supra n.1 at 1-2.

[12] See id. at 18.

[13] See id. at 17.

[14] Id.

[15] See United States v. Jarlik-Bell, et al., No. CR11-5407RBL (W.D. Wash. Aug. 10, 2011).

[16] See Otake, supra n. 1 at 17.

[17] See, e.g., United States v. Esera, et al., Nos. CR13-860LEK (D. Haw. Sept. 12, 2013).

[18] See United States v. Damas, et al., No. CR14-177JMS (D. Haw. Feb. 5, 2014).

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