Thomas Ogata


Name Thomas Ogata
Born January 8 1917
Died November 1 1983
Birth Location Waiakoa, Hawai'i
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Thomas Ogata (1917–83) was a Hawai'i political leader and judge and a Hawai'i Supreme Court justice.

Thomas Shoichi Ogata was born in Waiakoa, Maui, in 1917, the son of Seisuke and Kiyo Ogata. He grew up as part of a large family on a plantation in Maui. He later recalled that he had the job of drawing water from irrigation ditches during dry periods. After attending Maui High School, he enrolled at University of Hawaii. He received an AB degree from UH in 1938, then went on to the University of Michigan law school, where he graduated in 1941. During this time, he married Florence Fudeko Inouye. The couple had two children, Thomas Shoichi, Jr. and Dennis. (In 1971, he would marry his second wife, Dagmar Yaeko Morimoto).

In 1941 Ogata returned to Hawai'i, where he served for three years as an associate in the law office of Frank Thompson and Arthur Trask. He does not seem to have commented in later years on his experience in wartime Hawai'i under martial law or on his military record. In 1942 Ogata sat for the bar examination alongside a Chinese American friend (who has remained unidentified) whom Ogata permitted to copy his exam answers. After investigation by the Board of Examiners, Chief Justice Samuel Kemp and the two associate justices of the Territorial Supreme Court voted to deny both men admission to the bar. On the urging of Chuck Mau, an influential local attorney and member of the county Board of Supervisors, Honolulu City & County Attorney Jean Vaughan Gilbert (the first woman to hold such a position) agreed to hire Ogata as her clerk in April 1944. In June 1945, after a year of doing legal research and writing memoranda for Gilbert, Ogata again petitioned the Supreme Court for admittance to the bar. He admitted his misconduct on the previous bar examination and produced affidavits from Gilbert (Chief Justice Kemp's onetime law associate) and others as to his probity. In November 1945, after being admitted to the bar, Ogata was named deputy city & county attorney for Honolulu. In 1949 he was named deputy county attorney for Maui, where he served for 8 years. (In 1953, during his time in Maui, he studied at the Northwestern Prosecutor's School). In 1957, he was engaged as a special counsel for board supervisors.

In 1958, Ogata ran successfully for Hawai'i's territorial senate. A year later, after Hawai'i was granted statehood in 1959, Ogata was elected to the new State Senate from the 3rd District. In the following years, he moved up the ranks, serving successively as chair of the agriculture, land and economic development, transportation and tourism committees. He left the senate in 1964.

In 1966 Ogata was nominated by Governor John Burns, of whom he was a longtime supporter, to fill a vacancy in Hawaii's First Circuit Court. Ogata served on the circuit court for 8 years, and attracted widespread attention. In 1969, he authored a landmark judgment that ruled invalid the 1925 trust of Eliza Yates MacKenzie, a pioneer whose family settled on the Island of Hawai'i in the 1800s, because the trust denied benefits to heirs not of "unmixed white blood." In his ruling, Ogata stated that such a racial provision might have been valid in 1925, "But under present-day conditions and in this state such a provision should not be tolerated." Meanwhile, Ogata aroused controversy when he expressed an opinion in favor of abolishing the grand jury system: "I don't see that it serves any purpose at all. I think it's time for a change and that all cases should go through the preliminary hearing route."

In 1972, following the expiration of his initial term, Ogata was reappointed to the court by Governor Burns. In 1973, Burns announced his appointment of Ogata to the Supreme Court for a seven-year term. However, Burns fell ill and died of cancer shortly afterwards. It was thus his successor, Lieutenant Governor George Ariyoshi, who signed the actual appointment, which was confirmed by the state Senate in January 1974.

Ogata was appointed to the Hawai'i Supreme Court for a seven-year term. During his time on the court he was responsible for some landmark decisions. In one case, Ogata ruled that tavern owners could be held liable for the results of traffic injuries committed by drunken customers after they left the bar. In a widely-publicized civil suit brought by the parents of a teenage girl killed by a former mental patient, he held that court-appointed psychiatrists could not be held civilly liable for their determinations. In a widely-debated decision, he upheld the constitutionality of a law that criminalized man-on-woman rape but not women-on-man rape (a decision that resulted in the law in question being amended by the legislature). In 1976, he wrote the opinion for a unanimous court ruling striking down a University of Hawai'i policy imposing mandatory retirement on professors over 65. Ironically, because he had accepted some retirement benefits upon leaving the state employee retirement system when he was elevated to the bench, Ogata was himself forced to leave the court just before turning 65 in 1981 (he and his fellow judge Yasutaka Fukushima proceeded to challenge the law in court, but its constitutionality was upheld). Nevertheless, he continued to sit as a substitute justice. Indeed, it was his last decisions as a substitute justice, delivered in 1982, that proved among his most controversial. In one ruling, Ogata led the court in reinstating the conviction of an accused rapist, and asserting that the victim had opposed the assailant's actions sufficiently to establish that they were not consensual. He thereby reversed a ruling of the new intermediate Court of Appeals. In a second ruling, he joined the declaration of Justice Herbert Lum that secret wiretapping of a private conversation without a warrant was permissible as long as one of the parties to the conversation consented.

In late 1983, barely a year after his final departure from the Supreme Court, Ogata died in Maui Memorial Hospital aged 66. Ogata's sudden death prompted widespread shock and mourning. Elmer Cravalho, who had served with Ogata in the state legislature, praised him as honest and trustworthy and added, "He had a lot to do with charting the course of the state." Maui Mayor Hannibal Tavares stated, "I felt that he was one of the outstanding jurists we had."

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Masuda, Mari J. Called From Within: Early Women Lawyers of Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992.