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Saving of small bird made biggest impact on Judge Sam King

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Federal Judge Samuel P. King left behind a legal legacy that includes decisions ranging from upholding the state’s land reform law to halting construction of the H-3 freeway to protecting the rights of the mentally ill.

But those close to him say the judge, 94, who died Tuesday, was particularly proud of his decision protecting the endangered palila, a 6-inch finch-billed member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family.

King ruled in 1979 that the state had to protect the bird by ridding wild goats and sheep from the palila’s only natural habitat on the slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. He ruled that the palila had standing to press the case in federal court.

"He loved Hawaii and he loved what was unique about Hawaii and he didn’t mind telling people about that," Avi Soifer, dean of the University of Hawaii law school, said yesterday. "He thought it was one of his important decisions," U.S. District Judge David Ezra said. "He felt it was the right way to go in terms of enforcing environmental laws and protecting endangered species."

King had been on the federal bench since his appointment by President Richard Nixon in 1972, and his death sparked much praise.

"Judge King was an outstanding jurist and a warm, caring person," Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald of the Hawaii Supreme Court said. "On behalf of the Hawaii State Judiciary, I extend our deepest sympathy to his family."

James Burns, former chief judge of the state appeals court and son of Gov. John Burns, who defeated King in the 1970 governor’s race, said King was universally respected.

"Everybody loved him," Burns said. "Even the people who lost in front of him, they understood."

King told the Federal Bar Association in 1982 that when he was in private practice, he thought the U.S. District Court was "the last stronghold of tyranny."

"After I became a federal district judge, I realized that I had overstated the situation," he said.

During his nearly four decades on the bench, King handled thousands of criminal and civil cases, including ones that helped change the landscape of modern Hawaii.

"Every decision he made, he issued with care," said Doug Ushijima, King’s former longtime law clerk. "He was proud of every decision, even in the smaller cases, but I think the palila case is one he was particularly proud of." A framed picture of the bird hangs on the wall of his chambers on the fourth floor of the federal courthouse.

"He was an environmentalist before the term was even being used," University of Hawaii law school professor and King’s friend Randy Roth said. "He was always ahead of his time in doing the right thing."

Perhaps the judge’s most far-reaching ruling was the 1979 decision upholding the land reform law that allowed residential homeowner lessees to purchase the land from large landholders. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld his ruling.

King explained that Hawaii had an "uncommon system of landholding." Residential lands, he said, were held by large landowners who leased lands to lessees. He said the state law that sought to redistribute residential land and change the pattern of ownership was within the power of state lawmakers.

"He loved that Hawaii was unique," Soifer said.

"I think it was important to him to explain to judges who were going to review and to others who read the opinion that things were different here," the dean said.

Among King’s other significant rulings and published opinions that fill more than four law books:

» In cases known as Suzuki I and II, King ruled in 1976 and 1977 that a state law was unconstitutional because it allowed people to be committed to mental institutions simply because they were a danger to property. They had to be a danger to themselves or others, he said.

» King ruled in 1976 that observations by FBI agents using a telescope from about a quarter-mile away to peer into an apartment of a defendant in the Earl Kim organized crime trial violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. It was a landmark ruling that was studied at law schools across the country.

» In a strong endorsement of a free press, King ruled in 1974 that Mayor Frank Fasi could not bar Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Richard Borreca from the mayor’s news conferences. Fasi argued the newspaper could send another reporter, but King wrote: "One would have to be naive to believe that an individual reporter is solely responsible for the manner in which that reporter’s news stories appear in print. Thus, Mayor Fasi’s objections to Borreca’s performance as a reporter can equally be taken as objections to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s approach to city hall news."

» King issued a series of rulings in connection with whether construction of the H-3 freeway violated federal environmental protection laws in the 1970s. He issued an injunction halting the construction, which later resumed when Congress exempted the project from the law’s requirements.

» In 1977, King declared unconstitutional the state’s one-year residency requirement law for public employment, an attempt by the state administration to save resources and jobs for Hawaii residents. King opened his decision by citing writer Mark Twain’s quote describing Hawaii as the "loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean."

King said that for a thousand years, the islands attracted people who chose to stay here in "ever-increasing numbers." But the state wanted to keep people out of Hawaii, which amounted to "an interstate immigration policy."

"Sam did all this within the confines of the law," Roth said about King’s opinions. "He applied the law that made sense in the world in which we live."

In his 1982 speech, King told the bar that in retrospect, he had a different view of the courts.

"I now tend toward the belief that the federal district court is the last stronghold of our constitutional liberties," he said. "So I am not about to resign, not voluntarily, that is, nor am I about to shirk my responsibilities."

King’s longest-running case, which he kept until his death, was to continue monitoring the state’s efforts to protect the palila.

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