The first thing people noticed about Judge Sam King was that he cared — about everybody. He acknowledged just about everyone he happened upon and they loved talking to him. Government, business and legal leaders, waiters, janitors and friends: Everyone whose lives he had touched, from a single courtroom encounter to a long-term association, enjoyed his company.
He took time to visit convicts whom he had sentenced to prison.
Judge King used humor in his courtroom to help keep things real.
One day a woman testified to a dozen good reasons why she should be granted a divorce from her no-good husband, and she seemed to be just getting started.
Judge King kindly said, "Madam, I can give you only one divorce."
Another time, a litigant angrily exclaimed, "Your honor, may God strike me dead if that last witness wasn’t lying!"
Judge King told him, "There’s no reason to drag God into this. That’s why we have a jury.’"
There was a case involving eight reputed gangsters who looked intimidating. When the prospective jurors found out what the trial would be about, everyone seemed to have some reason not to serve.
A woman said she would be willing to do her duty, but that she was about to move to Maui.
Judge King responded, "Oh, well, here today, gone to Maui."
The prospective jurors had a good laugh and the newspapers had a headline that eventually found its way onto T-shirts.
Judge King later explained: "I didn’t invent the expression. I just used it to ease the tension."
It worked. He was able to assemble a jury.
Despite his gregariousness and wit, Judge King was a very serious man when he spotted corruption or any other form of abuse of power. He once commented that the whole purpose of government, besides keeping it safe, is to protect the underprivileged from the privileged.
At a different time, he told a reporter, "Every judge has an obligation: If you see something wrong in the community, you speak out against it."
Judge King did so on many occasions during his life, both before and after becoming a judge.
While practicing law in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example, he heard that the founders of the local chapters of the League of Woman Voters and American Civil Liberties Union were being singled out for alleged "un-American activities."
To attorney Sam King it looked like a witch hunt. He called the financially strapped couple to ask if they had a lawyer. When they said "no," he responded, "Well, you do now."
It was a very unpopular cause at the time, but he took it anyway because he believed it was the right thing to do.
In 1997 he joined me and three others in writing a scathing newspaper essay about trustee misconduct at what then was known as Bishop Estate (now Kamehameha Schools). Most active judges would not have touched that situation with a 10-foot pole, but Judge King saw injustice and believed that the situation was not likely to change unless he got personally involved.
Then he and I wrote a book about it, called "Broken Trust," in which we described instances of corruption and abuse of power by politically powerful individuals.
Critics contended that judges should not tolerate, much less encourage, humor in the courtroom, nor should they express personal views on controversial matters outside the courtroom.
Clearly, a balance is needed.
But many people of all sorts share my heartfelt belief that Hawaii is a much better place today because of Judge King’s down-to-earth approach to judging and his willingness to play an active role in his community when necessary to counteract the abuse of power.
Randall Roth is a professor at the University of Hawaii School of Law. Portions of this commentary are excerpted from a eulogy delivered by Roth at King’s funeral yesterday.