Retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge James S. Burns, who served more than 30 years on the bench, died Thursday at age 79 after a long bout with throat cancer.
Burns was married for 33 years to TV journalist Emme Tomimbang. Six years ago he began treatment for stage 4 throat cancer. She served as his caregiver. He became hers when she suffered a brain aneurysm.
“With a grateful heart, mahalo to all who have shared their thoughts,” Tomimbang wrote Thursday on her Facebook page. “My soulmate, love of my life and husband of 33 years has gone to the heavens — out of pain and suffering.”
Burns also leaves behind son Brendan and daughter Meredith.
“Jim Burns was a wise and humble man who was always guided by his love of Hawaii and a strong sense of fairness and common sense,” Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said in a written statement. “He was a model of integrity and always exemplified the utmost professionalism.”
Burns, the youngest child of Gov. John A. Burns, was a lawyer by the time his father took office in 1962, but couldn’t go before a judge his father had appointed.
Instead he found himself practicing family law because the Family Court judge was not an appointee of his father, he told PBS Hawaii TV in 2014.
Burns, who bore a striking resemblance to the governor, said that while his father was a “very significant person,” he didn’t think of his own life as worthy of publication.
“I think you really have to live your own life, and find your own niche, and become as good at it as you possibly can,” he said. “You don’t live your father’s life; you live your life, and that’s what I tried to do, without embarrassing him.”
“Piece by piece” he found his own path, he told PBS.
William Richardson, appointed chief justice by Gov. Burns, encouraged the younger Burns to become a judge, and eventually he tested the waters in 1976 as a District Court per diem judge.
In 1977 Gov. George Ariyoshi appointed Burns as First Circuit Court judge. In 1980 he was among three judges appointed to the newly formed Intermediate Court of Appeals, and in 1982 became chief judge, serving until his retirement in 2007.
“Commonly regarded as the father of the ICA,” Burns was responsible for establishing the culture and spirit of ohana there, said Chief Judge Craig Nakamura. “He shaped and nurtured the court and inspired all who have worked here.”
Born in Honolulu on April 19, 1937, Burns graduated in 1955 from Saint Louis High School. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Benedictine University and his law degree from Villanova Law School. He served two years in the Army and 12 years in the Hawaii National Guard. As a lawyer he was a solo practitioner for 12 years.
Burns “was probably the humblest leader one is ever likely to meet,” said Avi Soifer, dean of the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, in a written statement.
Burns, an adjunct professor and board member, left his legacy through talk-story sessions with students and practical advice to all, was much beloved and quietly inspired others, he said.
Soifer added, “A man of few, well-chosen words, practicality and dry humor, Judge Burns nonetheless changed the law in Hawaii in many ways as a judge.”
One ruling involved a banyan tree branch hanging into a neighbor’s yard. Hawaii had no law on the subject, Burns told PBS. He and his fellow judges ruled the boundary line was the deciding factor. Anything on a person’s side of the property line, including mangoes from the neighbor’s tree, was the property owner’s.
Burns also recalled serving as replacement Supreme Court judge who cast the tie-breaking vote in a same-sex marriage case in favor of sending it back to the Circuit Court to allow a hearing, which the lower court had not.