A Legal Advocate For Hawaiians

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 07, 2010
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William S. Richardson: the CJ

In the early 1950s, attorney William Shaw Richardson met regularly with a group of like-minded World War II veterans to plot a political takeover of Hawaii. They gathered in the Honolulu Hale office of county Civil Defense director John A. Burns, and they sought to breathe life into the moribund territorial Democratic Party.

Most in the room claimed pure Japanese ancestry and had served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe. Bill Richardson was half-Chinese, three-eighths Hawaiian and one-eighth Caucasian, and had served in the Philippines. The Japanese, 40 percent of the mid-century Territory’s population, would become the strong backbone of the modern Democracy; but Chinese, Hawaiians, and haoles had provided the majorities with which Republicans had dominated Territorial politics since shortly after annexation.

Some called Richardson the Democrats’ token Hawaiian. Not quite. Hawaiians named Heen, Trask and Kauhane had long carried the Democrats’ banner. But Richardson certainly became the party’s modern Hawaiian face, succeeding Burns as chairman in 1956, lobbying Congress for statehood in the late ‘50s, and helping Burns win the governorship as his running mate in 1962.


In 1966, Burns surprised political Hawaii - and Richardson himself - by appointing him Chief Justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court. In ensuing years, members of the Islands’ Republican legal establishment criticized Burns for making the Judiciary a dumping ground for politicians of dubious legal talent.

In a 1982 interview, Richardson - the CJ as he was known - responded to the charge: “I daresay that ex-politicians, because of their backgrounds and because of what they’ve done in the community, make the best judges. They’ve seen more of life.”

Richardson’s life included modest financial circumstances, a public school education, an undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii, and a University of Cincinnati legal education paid for by his father renting out his son’s room in their Kaimuki home. Despite the five-eighths of him that was Chinese and Caucasian, Richardson saw himself as a Hawaiian, the Islands’original settlers who had seen their land alienated and their population decimated by western disease.

“I always wanted to help the Hawaiians,” he remembered in 1982, “and felt that my help to the Hawaiians would be greater than if I tried to help the haoles or Chinese, who have millions of people helping them. But there aren’t many Hawaiians ... So I felt that what help I could give to any one of the races that I come from would be greatest and go farthest among the Hawaiians. I’m as proud to be partly haole and Chinese. But I know how many Chinese are helping Chinese. And I know how many haoles are helping haoles.”

Decisions of the Richardson Court married western law with traditional Hawaiian practices, dismissing the exclusionary claims of private property to ensure beach access and fresh water sources to all Hawaii’s citizens. It would also rule that new land formed by volcanic activity would become state property, not that of the adjacent private landholder.

And justices whom he mentored would later decide that native Hawaiians could exercise their traditional “gathering rights.”

Richardson would also lend his name to the University of Hawaii’s law school.

“Lawyers,” he said, “perhaps more than any single group of people, mold the community. And if you’re going to have lawyers coming from the Mainland, they are going to mold the community in the image of their community and background. But if you have them graduating from here, they will be molding it with our background. If they are going to be the important decision-makers, why not have them from here?”

Richardson saw another important purpose to the law school: “If you require (students) to go to the Mainland (for their legal education), you only get one type of person whose parents can afford to send them away. Talk to some of the UH graduates and they’ll say, ‘I would not have been able to go to law school were it not for this one.’”

Chief Justice William Shaw Richardson died June 21, respected for his contributions to the law and the legal profession and beloved by all who knew him for his humility, his charm and his great good sense. He was one of the principal architects of modern Hawaii, and he and his contributions will be missed.

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