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Does Doug Chin believe in civil rights for everyone?

Actions taken by the Department of the Attorney General, which Chin headed from 2015 until the beginning of 2018, lead one voter to question whether the candidate for Congressional District 1 is truly the civil rights champion he claims to be.

Justin Salisbury

Throughout the 2018 campaign season (and before) former Hawaiʻi Attorney General, current Lieutenant Governor and candidate for Congressional District 1 Doug Chin has branded himself as an advocate for civil rights and a champion against the socially regressive dogma of the Trump administration. Suing to block Trump’s travel ban is his number one claim to fame. But I just can’t get on board with this advertising.

And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with the years-old tape recording of Chin going on a tirade against same-sex marriage at his church. Voters will have to choose for themselves whether or not they believe, as Chin claims, that he has “evolved” on the issue. No, this has everything to do with the way in which he and his office of three years handled a civil rights bill in our state legislature just this past 2018 session.

Here in Hawaiʻi, blind people do not currently have a defined right to raise our own children. Yes, you read that correctly. If an ignorant social worker or family court assumes that blindness would prevent a person from effectively raising children, the State has the authority to take the child away from its blind parents. This problem can appear in Child Welfare Services cases, family law proceedings, adoption, and foster care settings. And it is not necessary for the State to demonstrate any functional deficiency; prejudiced beliefs about the consequences of blindness are sufficient here in Hawaiʻi to tear families apart.

This summer, we civil rights advocates marched and rallied against the Trump administration’s family-separation policy to say that families belong together, but we contradict that belief in our own legal code here in Hawaiʻi when it comes to the legally blind.

The blind community was exceptionally grateful to Senator Josh Green for championing this issue on our behalf during the 2018 session. When he heard that this was an issue, he immediately agreed to help, and he worked hard for us. Sen. Green introduced Senate Bill 2208, and quickly brought it to a hearing in his Senate Committee on Human Services in January of 2018.

At the time, Chin was still the Attorney General, and his office submitted written testimony in opposition and sent a representative to the hearing. Chin’s representative spoke in opposition to the bill, at one point even comparing blind people to substance abusers who could not be trusted with their children. As Sen. Green explained during the hearing, someone who is abusing substances is automatically impaired in their ability to take care of a child, but a blind person is not. Thankfully, Vice Chair Stanley Chang also did an exceptional job of questioning the representative from the Attorney General’s office, along with a representative from Child Welfare Services, and the committee passed the bill.

On February 6, 2018 the House Committee on Health and Human Services (HHS) held a hearing on the companion bill, House Bill 1928, which was again opposed by the Department of the Attorney General. In that hearing, after we all waited through hours of testimony on a controversial bill about the licensing of midwives, there was only a few minutes for testimony on our bill before a hard stop for a chamber vote at noon. The Deputy Attorney General got on the microphone and slowly read many pages of testimony, leaving the proponents of the bill, the blind people affected by it, very little time to speak. The committee later, in private decision-making behind closed doors, deferred the bill.

On February 7, 2018, Doug Chin—now the Lieutenant Governor—was the guest speaker at the meeting of the Labor Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi. I asked him directly why the Department of the Attorney General opposed my right to raise children, and he said that he had never heard about the bill. He asked me to give him the bill number so that he could follow up, and I gave him the text of the entire bill, which was still in my bag from the day before. He assured me that, as Lieutenant Governor, he would talk to the staff and ask them to tone down their opposition. He sounded very smooth, and I trusted him.

On February 24, I received a message from Doug Chin’s Facebook account saying “Aloha Justin - this is Dylan [Beesley], the LG’s campaign manager. He asked the AG’s office to tone down their position the day after you spoke with him.” I found it somewhat strange that my request for Chin to intercede as LG was being processed by the manager of his campaign for Congress, but I was hopeful that we could finally move forward now. Our House vehicle had died, but our Senate vehicle still had a chance. Leaders of the organized blind movement met with the Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary (JDC) in an effort to persuade him to give our civil rights bill a hearing. But, after reading the testimony of the Department of the Attorney General, he decided not to give our bill a hearing.

Sen. Green quickly introduced a resolution urging the Hawaiʻi State Judiciary and Department of Human Services to cease using blindness as a basis for denying parental rights. Representative Jimmy Tokioka also introduced a similar version in the House. Again, both resolutions faced opposition from the Department of the Attorney General, and none of the resolutions that reached the Senate Committee on Judiciary were given a hearing. House Resolution 138 was adopted, albeit in a weakened, amended form, by the House of Representatives. The organized blind movement is now hoping to pass a civil rights bill in 2019.

On April 6, at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, I attended a forum on paid family leave. Doug Chin was in attendance, and I spoke with him again about the continued opposition from the Department of the Attorney General and the Chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary. In his smooth style, he assured me that he would try to talk to both entities, but we never got the JDC hearing we needed.

At the 2018 Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi State Convention, resolutions concerning the civil rights of the blind and disabled—including one specifically dealing with this issue of parental rights—were easily passed by the majority of delegates, signaling that the party itself is staunchly behind ending this unjust policy of discrimination against the blind. Despite this support from the Democratic Party—as things stand in Hawaiʻi—if I marry a blind woman, neither of us will have the explicit right to raise our children and, as a result, they could be taken away from us at any time. If I marry a sighted woman, my access to any children that we may have will be contingent upon my wife’s eyesight. Nobody ever wants to experience divorce or the death of a spouse, but these are realities which exist in our society. I want to be sure that I do have the right to raise my own children before I create them.

Every time I hear Doug Chin call himself an advocate for civil rights, I reflect on the strident, uncompromising opposition to my civil rights that came from the office Chin headed since 2015. Every time I meet a nice young woman with whom I may be interested in pursuing a relationship, I am reminded of the reality that I do not have access to the full spectrum of rights to which sighted Americans have access. As a blind person in Hawaiʻi, our current legal system places a cruel limitation on any romantic relationship that I might have, because I do not have the right to raise my own children.

The blind community needed our elected and appointed officials to advocate for our civil rights. Sens. Green and Chang fought for us in their committee, but we needed the Attorney General’s office, too. The elected officials rely on testimony from the executive branch to make informed decisions. This shows how critical it is to have a law enforcement executive that is up-to-date, unbiased, compassionate and responsive. From the perspective of the blind community, the critical Department of the Attorney General—shaped over the past three years by Doug Chin—has failed to live up to its name and function. This begs the question: Does Doug Chin really believe in civil rights for all of Hawaiʻi’s citizens? Or just when it is politically convenient for him?