James Wakatsuki

Name James Wakatsuki
Born August 29 1929
Died September 22 1992
Birth Location Honolulu, Hawai'i
Generational Identifier


James Hiroshi Wakatsuki (1929–92) was a Hawai'i state representative and Hawai'i Supreme Court justice.

Early Life and Career

James Wakatsuki, longtime legislator and judge, was born in Honolulu in 1929, the son of Shichizaemon and Sachi Wakatsuki. He grew up in Kalihi, where he worked during his youth in a pineapple canning factory. After graduating Farrington High School, he enrolled at University of Hawai'i, then in 1948-49 was enlisted in the U.S. Army. After his discharge, he completed a bachelor's degree in business at Bowling Green University in Ohio. He then went on to the University of Wisconsin law school, and graduated in 1954. In 1956 he opened a law office in Honolulu. During this time, he served as secretary of the board of managers of the Kalihi YMCA and president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce. In 1957, he was named law clerk of Hawai'i's Territorial House Committee on Public Health and Welfare, directed by Representative George Ariyoshi , who became a mentor of sorts to him. That same year Wakatsuki married Irene Natsuko Yoshimura. The couple had three children in the succeeding years.

In 1958, Wakatsuki was elected from the 11th (Kalihi) district as the representative to the Territorial legislature. At 29, he was the body's youngest member. After Hawai'i was granted statehood in 1959, he was elected to the new State house. In the following years, he moved up the ranks, serving successively as chair of the major House committees: finance, policy, and education, and as House Democratic leader. During his term as chairman of education committee, he attracted publicity through his investigations of the Honolulu Department of Public Instruction. Wakatsuki discovered that the DPI had violated state laws by systematically hiring teachers who did not meet residency requirements. His charges over mishandling of school construction funds outraged Republican Governor William Quinn, who accused Wakatsuki and his colleagues of spreading political propaganda against him.

Legislator and Judge

In 1974, Wakatsuki was elevated to the position of speaker of the Hawai'i House, where he served for six years. As a loyal ally of Governor George Ariyoshi, he was a low-key leader, but kept firm control over the workings of house committees. His style of moderate consensus politics attracted some criticism from more independent members, but he was respected as hardworking and principled. Indeed, Wakatsuki's streak of tenacity in bargaining and his resolution in holding to his position on issues caused him to be dubbed "the opihi," after the shellfish that clings to sea-washed rocks.

During all his time in the Hawai'i legislature, Wakatsuki maintained his private law practice. However, he specialized in real estate and corporate law, and rarely appeared in court—he was not even admitted to the Hawai'i bar until 1966. It was thus a surprise when in 1974 Wakatsuki was nominated by governor John Burns to fill an expected vacancy in the state circuit court. However, once the vacancy failed to materialize, the nomination was withdrawn. In 1980 Wakatsuki was appointed circuit court judge by Governor George Ariyoshi. The appointment led to long debate in the Hawai'i State senate, and Wakatsuki attracted criticism by declining to step down as speaker during the confirmation process. Ultimately he was approved by a 19-4 vote. (Interestingly, two future Democratic state governors, Neil Abercrombie and Benjamin Cayetano, both voted against his confirmation). As circuit court judge, Wakatsuki attracted criticism from Republican Honolulu Prosecutor Charles Marstand when he declined to issue injunctions prohibiting persons from participating in cockfighting, gambling and marijuana growing. Wakatsuki insisted that these were matters for the criminal courts, where standards of proof were higher. Wakatsuki issued other tough rulings. He upheld a state measure reducing welfare benefits; threw out a city permit system restricting use of fireworks; ordered the removal of junked cars from Kawainui swamp, and assessed the Real Estate Finance Corporation a $270,000 payment to be paid to the State Employee’s retirement system. In one important case, he issued an order voiding a state land board ruling that permitted a large marina-based development at Ewa Beach, because the plan would not provide sufficient housing for low-income families. During his time on the bench, following a shuffling of assignments, Wakatsuki became the senior judge for civil cases. This granted him significant authority, since only he and another judge heard pretrial motions, and Wakatsuki alone could grant continuances. As senior judge, he received praise for clearing an existing backlog of civil cases.

Supreme Court Justice

In 1983 Wakatsuki was appointed as associate justice of the Hawai'i Supreme Court, filling the position abandoned by Herman Lum when he became chief justice. Governor George Ariyoshi chose Wakatsuki from a confidential list of six qualified applicants provided by an independent committee, the Judicial Selection Commission. The appointment of Wakatsuki, a longtime Democratic loyalist and operator who lacked legal and judicial experience, sparked criticism as a political payoff. Ariyoshi defended his protégé as being able to bring a real-life "perspective" to the court. Rather than permit Wakatsuki to take his position unchallenged, the state Senate convened a special session to consider the appointment. Much of the controversy surrounding the appointment stemmed from the responsibility of the state Supreme Court under Princess Beatrice Bishop's will to name trustees to the Bishop estate, and rumors that Wakatsuki intended to support controversial former labor leader and Democratic stalwart David Trask to the position. During Senate hearings, Charles Marstand denounced Wakatsuki in harsh terms as a "political hack " whose appointment would "degrade" the court. However, the nomination was supported by multiple labor unionists and political leaders, most notably Honolulu City Council chair and former Representative Patsy Mink , who praised Wakatsuki as a longtime friend who would serve with "honesty and integrity." Wakatsuki, for his part, promised to keep an open mind as to the Bishop trustee appointment. In September 1983 Wakatsuki was confirmed by the Senate in a 19-5 vote.

While on the court, Wakatsuki became notable as a liberal. He dissented in a case permitting the use in court of evidence secretly recorded by an undercover policeman. He also wrote an opinion throwing out a drug conviction based on a beeper planted by police in a suspect's photo album. He strongly dissented in a case of sexual molestation, where the majority ruled that forcible fondling of an underage woman's breasts did not constitute first-degree assault provided the woman was clothed. He was perhaps best known for his opinion in the 1989 Sandy Beach case, in which the court ruled against the practice of land-use zoning by initiative, dealing community activists a defeat.

In September 1992, near the end of his ten-year term, Justice Wakatsuki was admitted to the hospital, where he died suddenly of liver failure. Since he had kept his medical condition private, the sudden death was shocked many people. In an obituary editorial, the Honolulu Advertiser praised Wakatsuki as a "tough but fair" judge, though it stated that he would remain best known for his legislative service. At Wakatsuki’s funeral, chief Justice Lum mentioned that that he never forgot his roots, and this enabled him to "remain true to the common man."

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

Last updated Jan. 25, 2017, 4:34 a.m..