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Hawaii’s first female judge of Family Court ‘personified grace and wisdom’

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    Retired Senior Family Court Judge Betty Vitousek was a role model for female judges in Hawaii. She became the first women judge of the newly formed Family Court of the 1st Circuit in 1970. Vitousek died Monday at age 98.

Retired Senior Family Court Judge Betty Vitousek, instrumental in establishing the Family Court here as well as the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, died of natural causes Monday in Honolulu. She was 98.

A role model for women in Hawaii, she became the first female judge of the newly formed Family Court of the 1st Circuit in 1970 when Gov. John Burns appointed her to the position.

“Judge Vitousek was a person of great integrity, compassion and wisdom who shaped our Family Court into the strong institution it is today,” state Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said in a news release. “From encouraging mediation to developing programs to help families cope with the impacts of divorce, she was an innovator who cared deeply about Hawaii’s children and families.”

Vitousek was named senior administrative judge of the Family Court in 1977, overseeing a range of judicial services and programs, retiring in 1988, the Judiciary said in a news release. She was instrumental in shaping the court’s policies and procedures to address legal issues affecting families and children.

Judge R. Mark Browning, chief judge of the 1st Circuit, and former senior Family Circuit Court judge, called Vitousek “one of the greatest jurists in the history of the State of Hawaii’s Judiciary.”

“As a jurist and as a person, she personified grace and wisdom,” he said. “The values that she passed to us continue to be taught to a new generation of judges and lawyers. Her commitment to the children and the families of our state and to the community as a whole is a legacy that continues today. … She touched my life in a profound way, for which I am eternally grateful.”

Vitousek’s children say their mother was not just about what she did, but how she did things.

“My mother is the kindest human being,” said son Randy. She did things for others with humility and “believes that kindness is the greatest virtue you could ever have.”

“She was good at finding the good in people she disagreed with,” son Peter said, adding that she would do so in conversation. “She was not confrontational at all, but not a shrinking person. I don’t think she was doing it strategically. It was just who she was.”

Randy Vitousek, an attorney, said his mother tried to see things from other people’s perspectives to make things work for others, worked hard, agonizing over decisions, studying cases “to make sure she (made) the right decision.”

Although he could not appear before her, Randy Vitousek said his lawyer friends who did said she was “very calm and gave everyone the sense that they had an opportunity to be heard.”

“She was a mentor to so many of us, including myself,” retired Family Court Judge Evelyn Lance said. “She was that important. At that time the only woman judge was Rhoda Lewis, a state Supreme Court Justice.”

Among colleagues she was considered compassionate, fair but firm, and one who treated everyone with dignity. She worked collaboratively with fellow judges and Judiciary staff while developing new programs and making improvements within the Family Court.

After state Judges Samuel King and Gerald Corbett visited Rhode Island, which started a unified Family Court in 1965, she joined the pair in persuading the Legislature to create a Family Court in Hawaii, Lance said.

Born March 9, 1919, in Wenatchee, Wash., Betty Belle Morrison graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Washington in 1940.

That summer she participated in a student councils exchange tour, sailing to Japan just before World War II.

She met future husband Roy Vitousek, who got aboard the ship in Honolulu, joining the exchange tour.

After the war broke out, her children say, she served with the American Red Cross in New Zealand and New Caledonia. She read that Roy Vitousek, who was serving in the Navy, had been killed. A ship that was destroyed had been misidentified as his.

In Hawaii on her way back to the mainland, she called Vitousek’s parents to pay her respects, and Roy Vitousek answered the phone.

The couple married, and Roy Vitousek, shortly after entering Stanford Law School, learned his wife, bored at home, had spoken with the school’s dean to ask whether she could attend.

Betty Vitousek and another woman were the only two in the class. She and her husband graduated from law school in 1948.

After taking time off to have three children, she began her career.

Vitousek became nationally recognized, serving as president of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, was chosen as a delegate to the White House Conference on Children and served on the board of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

She also drafted the proposal to create the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii in 1950 and was involved in formulating it.

“My mother came from a line of very strong, accomplished women,” Randy Vitousek said. “My mother’s grandmother was elected secretary of state of Washington state, and my mother’s mother was Democratic National Committee chairwoman for Washington state.”

Her children say their mother has been a great role model for her grandchildren, spending time with and helping motivate them to accomplish all they could.

One of the last things she told her family was, “I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been in my life,” never taking credit for things or talking about her accomplishments, Randy Vitousek said.

Betty Vitousek is also survived by daughter Kelly, six grandchildren and five great-­grandchildren. Her husband Roy died in 1994.

Services are pending.

Correction: Betty Vitousek was the first female judge of Hawaii’s Family Court. An earlier version of this story, and Wednesday’s print edition story, said she was the state’s first Family Court judge.
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