Today we honor the legacy of one of the most pivotal kiaʻi in Hawaiʻi law and politics of the last century, William S. Richardson.
William Shaw Richardson (December 22, 1919 - June 21, 2010), whose tenures as Hawaiʻi Democratic Party leader, lieutenant governor, and chief justice of the Hawaiʻi State Supreme Court helped shepherd Hawaii from U.S. territory to modern state. A self-described “local boy” who grew up in Pālama and Kaimukī, Richardson rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential political and legal figures in modern Hawaiian history.
Richardson graduated from Roosevelt High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in business and economics from the UH and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati. After college, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and later served as platoon leader with the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in combat operations in Leyte, Philippines. He was later inducted into the Infantry Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Richardson drew on his multi-ethnic heritage (Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Caucasian) and commitment to the working class to help guide the emerging Democratic Party in its efforts to promote statehood and to overturn decades of Republican leadership. When colleague John Burns became Hawaiʻi’s first Democratic governor in 1963, Richardson became lieutenant governor.
But it was as head of the state’s highest court that Richardson’s impact was greatest. With Richardson at the helm from 1966 to 1982, the Richardson court handed down a series of judgments that assured public access to beaches, upheld traditional Hawaiian laws on access to kuleana lands, and affirmed public ownership of water and other natural resources. The decisions were consistent with Richardson’s controversial stand that western exclusivity concepts were not always consistent or applicable in Hawaiʻi. The Court applied traditional Hawaiian concepts - including the idea that certain resources, such as water, could not be privately owned - to ensure public ownership of resources. It awarded new land created by lava flows to the state, instead of to nearby property owners. It broadened the rights of citizens to challenge important environmental and land development decisions. Richardson’s term as chief justice would prove pivotal as Hawaiʻi’s population more than doubled and commercial development accelerated in the 1960s and ’70s. The Richardson Court's new-yet-old way of thinking sometimes drew criticism from the government and the legal profession but has become recognized as an enlightened approach for Hawaiʻi.
Richardson’s crowning achievement may have been the establishment of the UH Manoa law school, a cause he had supported for decades as a means of providing quality, affordable legal education for local residents. Richardson himself referred to the school as “a dream come true.” The school was named in his honor upon his retirement as chief justice in 1982.
After retiring from the court, Richardson served as a trustee for Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, a position he held until 1992. Through all his achievements and leadership, William S. Richardson paved the way in educating kanaka lawyers, politicians, and rights advocates in Hawaiʻi for generations to come.