Hiroshi Kato was one of the many young Japanese Americans who came back from World War II with the courage to believe he could change Hawaii for the better.
The youngest of seven children, Kato knew he had a job waiting at his family’s masonry contracting firm. But the veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team earned a degree from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, used the GI Bill to go to law school at the University of Minnesota and returned for a life in politics and the law.
Kato, who died April 14 from complications of pneumonia at 89, served seven terms in the state House representing Kaimuki, Kapahulu and Palolo and eight years as a Circuit Court judge.
Kato, an advocate for the labor movement, helped with the drive to establish the UH law school in the 1960s and was among the lawmakers behind the landmark Prepaid Health Care Act in 1974. The law requires businesses to provide health insurance to employees who work 20 hours a week or more and is considered a national model.
"He felt that working people needed to have medical insurance both for their health as well as to maintain their livelihood," said son Keith Kato, executive director of the Hawaii Island Community Development Corp.
"He made it his mission to see that this idea became a reality."
Kato was elected to the House in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. He was among the leaders of the chamber during the formative years of state government. He was also willing to sacrifice for principle.
Kato challenged House Speaker Tadao Beppu for leadership of the House after the 1970 elections, triggering an internal struggle between liberal and union-backed Democrats aligned with Kato and more establishment Democrats who stood with Beppu. The leadership fight extended a record 10 legislative days into the 1971 session before Beppu prevailed as speaker by accepting Republican help to break the stalemate. Kato lost his coveted chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee in the aftermath.
Gov. John Burns appointed Kato to the Circuit Court bench in 1974, where he handled civil and probate cases.
In one case cited nationally in the debate over noneconomic damages — Campbell v. Animal Quarantine Station — Kato ruled that a family was entitled to damages for emotional distress after state negligence led to the death of their dog. Princess, a 9-year-old boxer staying at the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa after her arrival in Hawaii, died of heat prostration after state workers left her in a hot van for more than a hour on a trip to a veterinary hospital.
The Hawaii Supreme Court upheld Kato’s ruling on appeal in 1981, finding that the family did not have to witness the dog’s death or provide medical proof of emotional distress to recover damages. The court decision put the death of a family pet on the same legal footing for emotional distress as the loss of other personal property, such as a newly built home by flooding due to state negligence.
State Sen. Brian Taniguchi (D, Moiliili-Manoa), who was a law clerk for Kato, described him as quiet and even-keeled but intense about the things he cared about.
He said Kato gave him advice after Taniguchi was first elected to the House in 1980, including how to navigate some of the organizational nuances that influence leadership and the importance of building relationships.
"He made a lot of the legislative changes to make life better for people in Hawaii," Taniguchi said.
Kato is survived by wife Janet, sons Keith and John, daughter Joanne and four grandchildren.