The Retired Judge is Remembered Fondly for His Intellect and Low-key Local Demeanor
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Jim Burns had the untucked Aloha shirt casualness Hawai‘i appreciates, but his intellectual rigour and character were just as strong as his father’s straightaway posture.
Former Hawai‘i Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge James S. Burns died March 9, a little more than a month before turning 80.
Burns was famous because he was the son of Hawai‘i’s beloved first elected Democratic governor, John A. Burn, and then made his own mark as one of the state’s most respected judges.
Wahiawä Democratic Rep. Marcus Oshiro knows how bright the spotlight can be when your parent is a famous Hawai‘i politician — his father was Robert Oshiro, the famed Democratic strategist who shaped the elections of several Hawai‘i governors.
“I always admired Jim Burns for having grown up in the fishbowl of Hawai‘i politics with a larger than life father, John A. Burns,” said Oshiro.
Gov. Burns, Hawai‘i’s second elected governor, who served from 1962 to 1974, was the central figure in the Democratic “revolution” of 1954 when Japanese American veterans who had returned from World War II and others took over majority control of the then-territorial Legislature.
“AJAs worshipped that man and the ground he walked on,” said Oshiro. “In many ways, he was our great father; he inspired my father and his contemporaries.
“Because of that great influence and huge shadow, I often wonder how a person develops and grows and lives and thrives to become their own person,” said Oshiro.
Jim Burns’ skill, says Oshiro, was that “You always felt good when you talk to him.”
“He could talk like a local boy. I know what motivated him and the sense we shared being local guys.
“You never forgot that this was one good local haole with us, despite the prestige and trappings of being the son of Gov. Burns,” Oshiro said.
“I always felt Jim was more Japanese than haole. He was a local boy,” said his wife, Emme Tomimbang. The couple was looking forward to celebrating their 30th anniversary later this year.
The story of how Burns got his middle name, Seishiro, is telling.
John Burns’ wife, Beatrice (“Bea”), was afflicted with polio and paralyzed from the waist down when she became pregnant with Jim. The couple, both devout Catholics, refused to have an abortion and were determined to proceed with the pregnancy. Burns had a friend, a massage practitioner named Seishiro Okazaki. He was an immigrant from Japan and a martial arts expert. Okazaki said his study of jüjitsu and jüdö enabled him to survive and beat tuberculosis as a teenager. Well-known in Hawai‘i as a healer, he offered to give Bea Burns daily massages to help with the birth of her son.
“It was a miracle birth. All the doctors predicted she is going to die, and so would the baby,” said Tomimbang.
“Bea had a healthy 8-pound baby,” she said.
When Burns asked Okazaki what he could do to repay him, he simply asked that the boy be named Seishiro.
Jim Burns became an attorney in 1965 and then worked his way up the judicial ladder, starting as a per diem District Court judge in 1976, moving through the Circuit Court in 1977 and then on to the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 1980, which had been established only a year earlier to hear almost all trial court appeals and some appeals by state agencies. In 1982, Burns was appointed chief judge of the Intermediate Court.
Former Gov. George R. Ariyoshi, who was Gov. Burns’ lieutenant governor, appointed Jim Burns to both the Circuit and Intermediate courts. He said he wanted to also appoint him to the state Supreme Court, but Burns was actually needed more on the Intermediate Court.
“I had Yoshimi Hayashi, Frank Padgett and Jim all on the Intermediate Court, and I wanted all three on the Supreme Court, but if Hayashi and Padgett moved up, we wouldn’t have anybody to run the Intermediate Court, and it was new, so we needed someone good there,” Ariyoshi explained.
“I know Jim felt a little bad because he wasn’t moved up. I explained it to him and he did a good job,” said Ariyoshi. Under Burns, the Intermediate Court of Appeals flourished, Ariyoshi said.
Avi Soifer, dean of the University of Hawai‘i’s William S. Richardson School of Law, says Burns’ most famous decision — and one still quoted nationally and internationally — involved trees growing over the property line.
“Basically, he ruled that if a tree grows over into your property, the fruit on your side of the line is yours,” Soifer said.
While the Intermediate Court doesn’t get many high-profile cases, Soifer said Burns “created that court.”
“He was also a terrific mentor to all the judges. He was most well known for his common sense practicality and not using more words than necessary. He was sort of a throwback in that sense,” said Soifer.
In 2008, Burns was forced to step down from the Intermediate Court because of the state’s age retirement rules. His successor as chief judge, Mark E. Recktenwald, credited Burns with doing a “phenomenal job” in handling the Intermediate Court transition.
“Hawai‘i lost a giant of the law,” said Recktenwald, now chief justice of the state Supreme Court, of Burns’ passing. “Jim Burns was a wise and humble man who was always guided by his love of Hawai‘i and a strong sense of fairness and common sense.”
His traits of being studious, fair and open were a recurring description by those who knew Burns.
Ariyoshi, for instance, said Burns was not one to seek out the spotlight or to tell jokes to get attention.
“In some ways, he had his father’s dry humor; he was not the kind of guy who would tell stories,” said Ariyoshi.
“He was a serious person, not one trying to make people laugh. He was serious and studious.”
Throughout his career, Burns would always be “the Governor’s son,” which, Ariyoshi said, molded Jim Burns into someone who “wanted to find a niche for himself and didn’t want to interfere.”
“He understood well what his father was involved in and did everything to pick up and carry on,” said Ariyoshi.
Realizing that as a state judge he could not be involved in politics or political endorsements, Ariyoshi said Burns turned to sports and was one of the state’s biggest athletic boosters.
When Burns became governor shortly after statehood, the University of Hawai‘i was central to the Montana-born governor’s hopes for Hawai‘i. He believed a robust and vibrant university system would make Hawai‘i an attractive place for both citizens and investors.
Burns set out to champion both a medical school and a law school so that Hawai‘i students would have a less expensive chance at higher education and so that the community in Hawai‘i would be enriched with legal and medical scholars.
One of the ways for the university to make a name for itself was through athletics, and Burns the Governor and Burns the Judge teamed up for its creation.
In a column, veteran Honolulu Star-Advertiser sports columnist Ferd Lewis remembered Carol Gouveia, who worked for ‘Ahahui Koa Änuenue, the athletic booster club and fundraising arm of the UH athletic department, for 32 years.
“For more than forty years, Jim Burns pursued and kept alive his father’s dream of establishing and maintaining a successful, nationally recognized athletics program at UH through AKA,” Gouveia said.
“He served on the board of directors in various positions before guiding the program as president for over thirty years,” Lewis wrote.
In continuing the UH legacy, Jim Burns served as a board member of both the Friends of the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the Friends of the William S. Richardson School of Law.
Richard Borreca is a Honolulu journalist. He has worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, KHVH News Radio, KHON-TV, Honolulu Magazine and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for which he now writes a Sunday column on politics.