Well Done, Sir!

It’s a sunny morning in Manoa, and we’re at the University of Hawaii Law School to interview a legend.

Susan Sunderland
Wednesday - February 10, 2010
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decisions with far-reaching consequences, it is monumental.

Often the traditional principles of Anglo-American law clashed with Hawaiian custom and tradition.

A newly published book of Richardson’s judicial opinions, Ka Lama Ku O KaNo’eau (The Standing Torch of Wisdom) states, “At times, this new yet old way of thinking drew criticism from government officials and the legal profession, but it has become recognized as an enlightened approach for our distinctive, multicultural homeland.”

Therein is the Richardson legacy.


In Richardson’s view, “Hawaii has a unique legal system, a system of laws that was originally built on an ancient and traditional culture. While that ancient culture had largely been displaced, nevertheless many of the underlying guiding principles remained.

“During the years after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and through Hawaii’s territorial period, the decisions of our highest court reflected a primarily Western orientation and sensibility that wasn’t a comfortable fit with Hawaii’s indigenous people and the immigrant population,” he states.

“Thus, we made a conscious effort to look to Hawaiian custom and tradition in deciding our cases - and consistent with Hawaiian practice.”

Richardson still encourages Native Hawaiians and other under-represented groups to work within the legal system to bring about positive change for all of Hawaii’s people. Reflective of his Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian heritage, he is conscious of social, economic and political deprivations.

Following graduation from Roosevelt and later the University of Hawaii, Richardson left Hawaii to attend law school at the University of Cincinnati. He boarded a Matson steamship for a five-day voyage to reach his destination. His father rented his room to pay for his college tuition.

“It was difficult and different for me in those days,” he recalls, “but with a bit of luck I got into law school.”

Access to quality education is another area where Richardson gets high marks. Determined that others in Hawaii should have the opportunity to attend law school and avoid the prohibitive cost of a Mainland education, Richardson fought an uphill battle over many years to create Hawaii’s only law school at UHManoa in 1973.

“Today, the law school has the largest and most diverse minority student population in the country,” he says. “Fifteen percent of our students are Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.”

He adds, “We are one of only a few schools in the country offering resources in Pacific-Asian legal studies, ocean law studies and environmental studies. And we’re the only law school to offer a concentrated course of study in Native Hawaiian law.”

The law school has an 83 percent bar passage rate, while the state average is 77 percent, and an employment rate of 91 percent of all students within six months of their graduation.

The Princeton Review rates UH’s William S. Richardson School of Law top in the U.S. for offering the best environment for minority students. It also gets high marks for most diverse faculty and best value based on tuition, bar passage and employment rates.

That pleases Richardson, who has a small office at the school and often pops in for visits with professors and students.

“Well, I must say I’m proud of it,” he says. “It means that some people that wouldn’t have had a chance to go to law school now have that opportunity.”

Among UH Law school graduates are Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi and recently appointed U.S. Attorney for District of Hawaii Flo Nakakuni.


Because of Richardson’s perseverance, more than 2,000 men and women - many from underrepresented, minority and indigenous Hawaiian communities - are practicing law, holding elected office, teaching law, serving in the judiciary and leading community service organizations.

With a track record of enviable life achievements, what then was his birthday wish as he turned 90.

“To have another birthday,” he says with a laugh.

For the man who instilled aloha into the laws of our land, we don’t doubt that there will be more birthdays.

Thanks to his legacy, we have received the gifts.

“Ka Lama Ke O Ka No’eau, Selected Opinions of William S. Richardson” is available at University of Hawaii School of Law, 2515 Dole St. Honolulu. Call 956-7966. Proceeds endow Amy C. Richardson Scholarship Fund and Building Excellence Project.

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