Hawaii Supreme Court chides state's legal moves on water after deadly Maui wildfire

FILE - The aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, is viewed Aug. 17, 2023. The Hawaii Supreme Court says the state attorney general's office must pay attorney fees for using last year's Maui wildfire tragedy to file a petition in “bad faith” that blamed a state court judge for a lack of water for firefighting. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)


HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii attorney general’s office must pay attorney fees for using last year’s Maui wildfire tragedy to file a petition in “bad faith” that blamed a state court judge for a lack of water for firefighting, Hawaii’s Supreme Court ruled.

It seems the state “tried to leverage the most horrific event in state history to advance its interests,” the ruling issued Thursday said.

The day after the historic town of Lahaina burned in a deadly August fire, the state attorney general’s office, representing the Board of Land and Natural Resources, filed a petition alleging east Maui stream flow protections established by Judge Jeffrey Crabtree caused the water shortage.

“Naturally we paid attention,” said the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Todd Eddins. “The Department of the Attorney General initiated an original proceeding during an unthinkable human event. The petition advanced an idea that legal events impacted the nation’s most devastating wildfire.”

The Sierra Club of Hawaii complained the state exploited the tragedy to help a private company monopolize water, noting that east Maui reservoirs were of no use to west Maui, where a wildfire killed at least 101 people.

Maui County said they had more than enough water to fight the fires, the ruling noted.

A deputy attorney general refused to “walk back” the accusations, the ruling noted.

The state’s “refusal to withdraw the meritless assertions, the flimsiness of its request for extraordinary relief, and its use of the Maui tragedy, support a finding of frivolousness and bad faith,” the ruling said.

The attorney general’s office said in a statement that it “disagrees with the court’s characterization and with its conclusions.” It later added it will comply with the order.

Sierra Club attorney David Kimo Frankel said he estimates disproving the state’s claims cost about $40,000.

The ruling comes the day after state Attorney General Anne Lopez released a report into the fires saying a broad communications breakdown left authorities in the dark and residents without emergency alerts.