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Justice ‘gave life to Hawaiian law’

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    William Shaw Richardson / December 22, 1919 ~ June 21, 2010. Former Hawaii State Supreme Court chief justice.

William S. Richardson, a former Hawaii State Supreme Court chief justice, had a lifelong commitment to social justice that has served as a model for thousands of students whose juris doctorates bear the name of the law school he helped found.

Richardson died early yesterday at his home, surrounded by family, son Bill Richardson said. He was 90 and had suffered a stroke in April.

Rising to prominence during the Democratic Revolution of the 1950s, Richardson married a dogged moral conscience with a keen legal mind as Hawaii Democratic Party chairman, lieutenant governor under John Burns, chief justice and Bishop Estate trustee. And while his daring assertion of a local jurisprudence informed by traditional Hawaiian understandings drew its share of criticism, his willingness to speak out for the disenfranchised and promote public good over commercial interest made him a beloved figure in Hawaii.

A self-described "local boy" of Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian ancestry, Richardson grew up in Palama and Kaimuki and worked as a newsboy and pineapple hand for pocket change.

The family lived in a home that his father built from surplus and cast-off lumber, burned wood to heat their water, and collected buttons from used clothing for the shirts his mother sewed for them.

He didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was in the sixth grade.


» Gov. Linda Lingle: "The former chief justice played an integral role in shaping Hawaii’s political and legal landscape."

» Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie: "No matter how difficult the subject matter or issue, he was always willing to incorporate your views and concerns."

» U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono: "Anyone who has lived in Hawaii the last 60 years knows what a tremendously positive impact he had on our state through his lifetime of service."

» Mayor Mufi Hannemann: "William Richardson, whom we affectionately called ‘CJ,’ was one of the most influential figures in modern-day Hawaii as the former chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court."

» House Speaker Calvin Say: "He is one of the last standouts of the Democratic revolution. What we are today is, in part, a reflection of his values and intellect."

» Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, Jr.: "Through his work to develop the William S. Richardson School of Law, Chief Justice Richardson opened doors for our local residents, including myself, to pursue legal careers, and I am forever grateful for his leadership."


As historian Lawrence Fuchs noted in his book, "Hawaii Pono," Richardson’s parents could not afford to send him to Kamehameha Schools, despite the fact that his grandfather was an aide to Queen Liliuokalani. Instead, he attended Roosevelt High School, where he found an early mentor in football coach Neal Blaisdell.

With Blaisdell’s encouragement, Richardson attended the University of Hawaii, quickly distinguishing himself as both a scholar and an athlete. As captain of the UH swim team, Richardson set a pool record for the 50-yard freestyle. He eventually caught the eye of chemistry professor Lenore Bilger, who urged him to pursue a career in law.

And so he did. After completing his bachelor’s degree at UH in 1941, Richardson set off by steamship and rail to attend law school at the University of Cincinnati, where Bilger and her husband once worked. As Richardson frequently noted, his parents rented out his room to pay for his legal education. He earned his juris doctorate in 1943, just as the war in the Pacific was reaching its apex.

Richardson volunteered for the Army Air Corps and later served as a platoon leader with the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment, made up primarily of Filipino-Americans and Philippine nationals, and saw combat in Leyte. After the war, he returned to Hawaii and served for a time in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

Like the Nisei war heroes who proved their patriotism as members of the 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team only to return to second-class status in their Big Five-controlled home, Richardson aligned himself with the emerging Hawaii Democratic Party, eventually serving as its chairman from 1956 to 1962.

Richardson’s father, Wilfred, had also been an active member of the party in its formative years as an alternative to the sugar-friendly Republican Party. His grandfather, Col. John Richardson, aide to Liliuokalani, was a vocal opponent of the oligarchy that had come to rule the islands.

Like Burns, at whose request he recruited native Hawaiians to the Democratic Party, Richardson was a strong advocate for statehood and the promise that full citizenship would ensure a more level playing field for Hawaii’s working class and non-white ethnic populations.

In 1963 the ticket of Burns and Richardson rode the party’s momentum to a breakthrough victory in the gubernatorial election. Four years later, he was appointed chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, the position from which he would most directly effect his activist views.

The Richardson court wasted little time in establishing its stance on how matters of public access to natural resources would be interpreted.

In Palama v. Sheehan, in which landowner Philip Palama sought to restrict John Sheehan from accessing his kuleana land near an ancient fishing pond contained within Palama’s property, the court ruled that Sheehan should be entitled to unfettered access to his kuleana land in keeping with traditional Hawaiian rights.


July 8 Respects
10 a.m.-7 p.m. at Moot Courtroom at the William S. Richardson School of Law, 2515 Dole St.

July 9 Public memorial
8 a.m.-11 a.m. (respects) and 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (service) at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 229 Queen Emma Square. Burial will be private.

Due to limitations on parking and time at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the Richardson family encourages members of the public to pay respects at the law school. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to "William S. Richardson — Realizing the Dream."


The court’s recognition of established Hawaiian practices and understandings — "The western concept of exclusivity is not universally applicable in Hawaii," Richardson famously remarked — would prove revolutionary during a period in which the second Hawaiian Renaissance was gaining traction and aggressive commercial development was testing the boundaries of the young state’s legal system. For Richardson, the first part-Hawaiian to serve as chief justice, it was a fair and reasonable way to make the law work in the greater public’s favor.

As a child, Richardson chafed at how difficult it was to get to the beach because so many access points were cut off by private homes. And the memory of having to stand in the water outside the Royal Hawaiian Hotel because the sand was off limits to all but hotel guests stayed fresh in his memory, even in his later years.

By 1968, the same year as the Palama-Sheehan decision, Richardson was in a position to make things right according to his own sense of fairness. In the Ashford v. State of Hawaii case, the court ruled that shorelines would be defined according to the understanding contained in royal land patents, effectively ensuring that the public had access not just to the ocean but the inland area marked by the upper reaches of its waves. In the County of Hawaii v. Sotomura case five years later, the court clarified its earlier decision, defining publicly accessible shoreline at the point where vegetation begins. With the accompanying determination that land below this mark belonged to the state in trust for the public, hotels and private homes could no longer restrict access to the beaches along their properties.

That same year, the Richardson-led court handed down another monumental decision on the use of natural resources. In McBryde Sugar Co. v. Robinson — which pitted McBryde Sugar Co. against Olokele Sugar Co., the state and other parties over the use of water that had been diverted from Hanapepe River via an irrigation system engineered by Gay & Robinson — the court ruled that the state held sovereign rights to the stream in public trust, thereby denying both plantations’ claims of ownership.

"There was Hanapepe River, and there were two plantations," Richardson told columnist Lee Cataluna last year. "Both were getting water. But they weren’t the ones I was worried about. It was the rice patches and taro patches downstream. I was thinking of them."

The year 1973 was also significant for Richardson because it marked the much-anticipated opening of the University of Hawaii law school, which Richardson had long advocated as a means of providing legal education for local scholars, particularly those of native Hawaiian ancestry.

Upon Richardson’s retirement from the court in 1982, the school officially became known as the William S. Richardson School of Law. Richardson called the school "a dream come true," and he remained a constant presence in its hallways, offering encouragement and guidance to generations of future attorneys and judges.

Richardson served as a Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate trustee, spending as much time at sporting events and song contests as in board meetings, from 1983 until 1992.

For all of his accomplishments, Richardson remained humble and approachable to the end, his compact figure animated by restless intellect and by earnest enthusiasm for a host of interests well beyond the realm of law.

And while Richardson himself was reluctant to speak of his contributions to his profession and his home, the time to ponder his legacy has arrived for his family, friends and colleagues, as well as for the generations of Hawaii residents whose lives were changed by his work.

Richardson is survived by son William K. Richardson, daughters Barbara Richardson-Phillips, a Honolulu district judge, and Corinne K. Wolfe, sisters Amy Kahoiwai and Pearl Nishimura, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


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