The most towering figure in Hawaii’s legal system in the past century, William S. Richardson put into law the principle that the islands are unique in historically requiring that natural resources be shared by the general public. As the state’s chief justice, Richardson assured broad basic rights exceeding those of other states. He died Monday at the age of 90.
"The western concept of exclusivity is not universally applicable in Hawaii," Richardson wrote in one of the powerful opinions during his 16 years as head of the state Supreme Court.
The vision emerged from a part-Hawaiian who rose from a meager upbringing to political activism and a legal career that stands alone in achievement in Hawaii. Earning his law degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1943, Richardson was an Army Air Corps platoon leader in World War II. After the war, he served as chairman of the emerging Democratic Party from 1956 to 1962 and was elected lieutenant governor under his good friend, John Burns, in 1962. Burns appointed him chief justice in 1966.
Soon after Richardson became the state’s top judge, the state Supreme Court ruled that the owner of a small piece of land had the right to use "an ancient Hawaiian right of way" across a neighbor’s land to reach his own.
In 1968, the Richardson court guaranteed the general public access to beaches, ending restrictions by hotels and shoreline homeowners. In a dispute between two plantations for rights to stream water, the court’s priority was to protect the rights to downstream rice patches and taro patches, finding that the state held sovereign rights to the stream, consistent with Hawaiian tradition.
Richardson worked to convince the Legislature to authorize the opening of the University of Hawaii law school in 1973, which he regarded as a prime accomplishment. The former Palama lad who once worked as a newsboy and pineapple hand surely saw the value of nurturing homegrown minds and talent to inform decisionmaking. Indeed, his landmark rulings were the embodiment of his own experiences and inequities that were righted.
Richardson retired from the bench in 1982, at which point the law school was deservedly named the William S. Richardson School of Law. He maintained an office in the law school, where he encouraged and gave advice to students and faculty.
After stepping down from the Supreme Court, Richardson was selected as a trustee of the Bishop Estate, now Kamehameha Schools, by his former colleagues on the Supreme Court — a controversial system that has since been correctly ended. He completed his service as trustee in 1992.
Richardson’s presence will remain through the strong rulings made by his Supreme Court to provide freedom of access to land and water in the islands, for his devotion toward improving the lives of ordinary people through the rule of law. For those who knew him personally, he will be remembered for the humility and dignity embodied in such an extraordinary person.