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First Korean American state Supreme Court Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon dies at 81

                                Retired, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Moon is shown in the Hawaii Supreme Court’s room after an interview. Moon died Monday at age 81.
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Retired, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Moon is shown in the Hawaii Supreme Court’s room after an interview. Moon died Monday at age 81.

Ronald Moon, a “kolohe” kid from Wahiawa committed to fairness and working tirelessly to evolve and protect the judicial institution in Hawaii during 17 years as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, passed away Monday night at the age of 81.

“The judiciary has lost a legend. Chief Justice Moon was a visionary leader and trailblazer in the legal profession. But he never forgot his roots growing up in Wahiawa, and wanted every person to be treated fairly and with respect when they came into our courtrooms,” said Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, in a statement. “Under his leadership, the Supreme Court decided landmark cases ranging from same sex marriage, to protecting native Hawaiian rights and the environment. He also worked tirelessly to make the judiciary more effective and accessible, and shaped us into the institution we are today.”

Colleagues, friends and even professional adversaries lauded Moon’s desire to ensure all parties understood the relevant facts of legal matters and left his courtroom feeling like they got a fair shake. Born on Sept. 4, 1940, in Wahiawa, Moon came of age during Wahiawa’s plantation era and graduated from the Mid-Pacific Institute. He started out in public service when former Gov. George Ariyoshi appointed him to serve as a a circuit judge.

In 1990, another Democratic governor, John Waihee, elevated Moon to associate justice on the Supreme Court. Moon, a Republican, who spent 45 years working the law (28 years of which were spent on the bench), told The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Ken Kobayashi that he declined a lifetime appointment to the federal court because it meant returning to the trial court level.

“It didn’t have the opportunity to be a court of last resort, which I felt was much more important and gave me an opportunity to be involved in the law as it applied to Hawaii,” he said in 2010 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Three years later, Waihee appointed Moon chief justice, making him at the time the first and only chief justice of Korean ancestry in the country.

Waihee, in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said he took a liking to Moon after they represented opposing sides in a civil matter. Moon’s fairness and understanding of the intricacies of the judiciary moved Waihee to pick him as chief justice.

“I liked his approach to settling cases and trying to see how everybody could win. He was very good at that..making people understand the facts. He had a feel for the underdog. He always wanted to make sure things were even,” said Waihee. “He had a lot of understanding of the institutions…and that’s important. He was a fun guy, he was very ethical. He was very sure that lines were not crossed.”

Waihee said Moon worked hard to maintain a proper bearing and conduct himself in an upright and ethical manner as a jurist. His professional demeanor balanced a free spirit.

“He grew up as the Hawaiians would say ‘kolohe’,” said Waihee. “You knew he always had that in the back but he was very proper with how he conducted himself…it was fun to talk to him.”

Moon would begin most of his public remarks with a corny joke, friends said, to “humanize the court and get the audience on his side,” said Avi Soifer, a law professor and former dean of the William S. Richardson School of Law.

“He was important for a long time in the judiciary. He used to quote his father as saying ‘Public service is the rent one pays for occupying the space here on earth.’ He (Ronald Moon) believed that.”

Soifer, credited Moon’s time living and attending college in Iowa as providing him with the maturity and values to harness his brilliance and use his talents to benefit Hawaii.

After graduating from Mid-Pacific, Moon attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before earning his law degree from The University of Iowa.

“Justice Moon was an outstanding judge and justice and a loyal Hawkeye who remained connected to his alma mater, the University of Iowa College of Law. Iowa Law is so proud of his trailblazing career and his lengthy judicial service to the state of Hawaii,” said Kevin Washburn, dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.

Soifer, who lived in Des Moines and met his wife in Iowa, recalls a story Moon told about being terribly homesick during his time at Coe College. A friend took him home for Thanksgiving and asked him if there was anything he could eat what would it be. Moon told his friend he was craving rice.

Course after course came out of the kitchen, but no rice. Moon had made peace with the rice-less meal when the family cleared the table and brought out dessert.

“Rice pudding,” said Soifer.

Under Moon’s leadership, the judiciary started drug court, mental health court, and girls court programs, and a certification program for court interpreters, progressive accomplishments for the son of Duk Mann Moon, a clothing store owner and leader in the Wahiawa Korean Christian Church. Moon grew up going to church three times a week and embraced Republican values but he tried to prevent politics from playing out in his courtroom.

“He had to manage a court that was very diverse and most of them were Democrats. But he was able to. The (state) supreme court’s reputation as being progressive continued under his tenor,” said Kobayashi, who covered courts as a journalist in Honolulu for more than three decades.”

In 1993, Moon sided with Associate Justice Steven Levinson, who wrote the pioneering opinion that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the Hawaii constitution. Moon told Kobayashi in 2010 that at conferences after the ruling, “I was the butt of many jokes.”

But he never changed his mind. “It was very difficult for me. But when we looked at the facts and researched the law, it was the right thing to do,” said Moon in 2010.

Moon’s court came under fire in the 1997 Broken Trust essay that criticized the conduct of Bishop Estate trustees and the way the justices picked them.

Moon and three of the four other justices later ended the more than century-old practice of selecting the trustees, as called for in the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano remembered Moon as a “good justice” who “served the court well.”

“He tried to be fair. He was on the court when a lot of things happened with Bishop Estate that was a difficult moment for him,” said Cayetano.

Moon also worked effectively with the Legislature, which provided funding for four new courthouses during his tenure. The $130 million family court complex in Kapolei, opened in 2010 and bears his name.

Current and former elected officials and others lauded Moon’s judicial career and thanked him for his career in public service and the judicial programs he pioneered.

Gov. David Ige said served with “honor and distinction.”

“During his many years on the bench, he led by example and worked hard to instill trust in the state’s justice system. The award-winning programs he created years ago continue to be models for judicial systems across the country,” said Ige, in a statement. “What I will remember about Chief Justice Moon however, is his sense of humor and his lighter side, in addition to the very serious work he accomplished. I extend my heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and former colleagues.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi was “saddened to hear” of Moon’s passing and credited him with spearheading and implementing many “visionary programs” that have affected countless lives in Hawaii.

“On behalf of the Hawaiʻi State Senate, I extend my sincerest condolences to Chief Justice Moon’s family and loved ones. His presence will be greatly missed by all,” said Kouchi, in a statement.

Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said Moon was a “strong leader who worked tirelessly to improve the Judiciary.

“He was tough, well respected, and fair. The Judiciary made many advances under his leadership and he will be missed,” said Alm.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Moon “showed us all what it meant to be a true servant leader.”

“Known for treating everyone with respect and dignity when they stepped into the courtroom, Chief Justice Moon didn’t just talk the talk – he walked the walk. He led by example and worked tirelessly to make the judiciary one of accessibility, fairness, and public trust,” he said. “The judiciary didn’t just lose an outstanding leader, the entire state of Hawai‘i lost a truly great man. I offer my deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all those he influenced during his many years on the bench.”

Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa visited with Moon three weeks ago and introduced the resolution to name the Kapolei Judiciary Complex in honor of Moon.

Moon revamped the structure of Hawaii’s Appellate Courts, and helped Hawaii avoid a federal consent decree by negotiating and implementing the Kapolei Family Court Complex with the Juvenile Detention Center alongside it.

“What the (chief justice) should be recognized for is the respect he earned from the other branches of government. He would not have been able to accomplish what he did without knowing how to navigate the Legislature and the executive branch. For those who may say, it’s because he was part of the political system. Know that CJ Moon was a Republican who worked with a Democratically controlled Legislature and governors of both parties,” Hanabusa said. “He was a true leader of a co-equal branch of government.”


Ronald T.Y. Moon

>> Born: Sept. 4, 1940

>> Education: Mid-Pacific Institute, Coe College in Iowa, University of Iowa law school

>> Legal career: Law clerk, U.S. District Judge Martin Pence, 1965-66; city deputy prosecutor, 1966-68; associate and partner, Libkuman, Ventura, Moon and Ayabe, 1968-1982

>> Judicial career: circuit judge, 1982-1990, associate justice, 1990-1993; chief justice, 1993-2010

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