by Melody Kapilialoha MacKenzie Director

Welina nui ‘oukou e nā hoa makamaka,

In Hawaiian, admiration for a wise person is expressed in the phrase, “ka lama kū o ka no‘eau,” literally meaning “the standing torch of wisdom.” This is indeed a fitting description of former Hawai‘i Supreme Court Chief Justice William S. Richardson. Recently, the American Bar Association presented its national Spirit of Excellence Award to CJ Richardson. Here at the Law School that bears his name and especially for those of us who have benefited from his decisions – both in his role as a jurist and as a wise mentor and leader – we take special pleasure in this national recognition of our own CJ Richardson.

Born into a working-class family of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Caucasian ancestry, CJ understood the social, economic, and political deprivations felt by many, and he committed himself to social justice by changing Hawai‘i’s political and government structure. He served as Lieutenant Governor from 1962 to 1966 and then as the first Native Hawaiian Chief Justice of the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. Throughout his career, CJ Richardson consistently encouraged Native Hawaiians and other underrepresented groups to work within the legal system to make positive change for all of Hawai‘i’s people.

As Chief Justice of the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, CJ Richardson also mentored generations of young law clerks, many of them Native Hawaiians who have become leaders in the community. Working closely with his fellow justices, CJ Richardson helped to incorporate Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices into state law and expanded public rights. CJ recently reflected on his court’s approach to these important issues:

Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i’s territorial period, the decisions of our highest court, reflected a primarily Western orientation and sensibility that wasn’t a comfortable fit with Hawai‘i’s indigenous people and its immigrant population. We set about returning control of interpreting the law to those with deep roots in and profound love for Hawaii. The result can be found in the decisions of our Supreme Court beginning after Statehood. Thus, we made a conscious effort to look to Hawaiian custom and tradition in deciding our cases – and consistent with Hawaiian practice, our court held that the beaches were free to all, that access to the mountains and shoreline must be provided to the people, and that water resources could not be privately owned.

This new yet old way of thinking sometimes drew criticism from government officials and the legal profession, but it has become recognized as an enlightened approach for our distinctive, multi-cultural homeland.

Nothing is more striking about CJ Richardson’s achievements than his longstanding and still ongoing commitment to opening educational and professional avenues for the islands’ most disadvantaged groups. Many consider the establishment of the Law School in 1973 to be CJ’s crowning achievement. He understood that those with the greatest stake in building a more just and equitable society were often denied the opportunity to attend law school because of the prohibitive cost. Determined that all in Hawai‘i should have the opportunity to obtain a legal education, he fought an uphill battle over many years to create and give shape to Hawai‘i’s only law school. Recently, CJ talked about the fulfillment of his vision for the Law School:

Today, the Law School has the largest and most diverse minority student population in the country – over seventy percent. And fifteen percent of our students are Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. 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 are the only Law School to offer a concentrated course of study in Native Hawaiian Law. The school’s commitment to its mission - to promote justice, ethical responsibility and public service – has grown stronger each year.

Because of CJ’s perseverance, over two thousand 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 services organizations in Hawai‘i and around the world.

CJ’s vision also lives on in the Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, which supports Native Hawaiian law students, engages in discourse with the Hawaiian community about legal issues that affect their lives, and undertakes wide-ranging programs to increase education and scholarship on unique aspects of Native Hawaiian law.

For the Law School’s 2005 graduation ceremony, graduate Kahikino Noa Detweiler wrote and presented an Oli Aloha, a chant honoring CJ Richardson. As Noa explained, the chant compares CJ Richardson to the lehua blossom, a poetic reference for a person of profound skill and wisdom.

The Oli Aloha alludes to Kamehameha’s Law of the Splintered Paddle, the law that declared, “Let the old men, the old women and the children go and sleep by the wayside; let them be not molested.” As one version of the mo‘olelo about this law recounts, several commoners of Puna were fishing when the young chief Kamehameha happened upon them. Knowing only that a stranger and a chief approached and fearing trouble, the men fled; Kamehameha pursued. When Kamehameha’s ankle was caught in a lava crevice, Kaleleiki, one of the fishermen, turned back and with his paddle, hit Kamehameha on the head, splitting the paddle in two. Years later, when Kaleleiki and his companions were brought before Kamehameha for punishment, instead of putting them to death, Kamehameha recognized his own responsibility in causing the incident. He proclaimed the Law of the Splintered Paddle, protecting even the most defenseless from oppression by those with more power and authority.

Thus, in Noa’s tribute to CJ Richardson, I was reminded that the Law School’s graduates fulfill CJ Richardson’s highest aspirations for us when we protect those who are powerless from those who have power, when we fight for those who lack economic security and life’s basic necessities, and when we seek justice for Hawai‘i’s native people and, indeed, for all people in our homeland.

The last pauku or verse of the Oli Aloha exhorts us - those who have so benefited from Chief Justice Richardson’s gift - to heed the call, to stand and persevere, and to hold fast to the splintered paddle of Kaleleiki.

Eō e nā punahele o ka pua lehua
E kū! E ho‘omau!
E pa‘a a pa‘a i ka hoe māmala a Kaleleiki e!

Mahalo to Dean Avi Soifer and Susan K. Serrano who worked on an earlier version of this article and a special mahalo a nui loa to Kahikino Noa Detweiler. The Hawaiian saying that opens this article as well as the English version of the Law of the Splintered Paddle are from Mary Kawena Pukui, ‘ŌLELO NO‘EAU, HAWAIIAN PROVERBS & POETICAL SAYINGS (Bishop Museum Press, 1983).