Family Court

Michael Broderick


At the age of four, Michael Broderick lost his father in an auto accident. A family man who grew up without a father figure in his life, he has made a difference in the lives of families in Hawaii, first as a Family Court judge, and as President of the YMCA of Honolulu.


This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Sept. 20 at 4:00 pm.


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And then, when I left being a judge, here’s what people say to me: Michael, you look pretty good. And I say, Well, gee, what did I look like before? They say, You looked like you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. I wasn’t even aware of that.


Michael Broderick has altered his career path several times over the years, but he’s always been guided by his strong sense of family and community. YMCA of Honolulu President and CEO, Michael Broderick, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In 2010, Hawaii Family Court Judge Michael Broderick stepped down from the bench at a time when he appeared to be at the height of his career. His concerns about Hawaii’s youth and the community led him to a new calling as President and CEO of the YMCA of Honolulu. Broderick has spent a large portion of his career looking out for people and families. His own life started with a devastating loss.


Where did life begin for you? What was it like?


Well, I was born in Dallas, Texas, and lived there for four months. And then, my father was killed in a car accident when I was four months old.


Four months!


Yeah. And so, we moved back to Philadelphia, where my aunt lived, my mother’s sister, and my aunt’s husband, my uncle, and their four boys. So, my brother, who at the time was two years old, and myself and my mom, moved into that house. And there was also our grandmother, who was there as well.


Oh, multigenerational family.




Extended family.


Extended; and Italian. Okay; that’s key.


So, everything was big family table of meals.


Absolutely. We all sat down together for dinner every night, the ten of us, and we had a beautiful Italian meal that my grandmother had cooked. So, I was raised by my grandmother, a hundred percent Italian; my uncle, hundred percent Italian; my aunt, one hundred percent Italian; and my mother, one hundred percent Italian.


And so, what does that mean to you when you explain that you’re fully Italian, through and through?


I think there’s a certain passion that comes with being Italian. I have great pride in the culture. Obviously, I love Italian food. But I think most of the Italians are about family; family is really important to them. And so, I was raised to really cherish and value my family.


And yet, here you were at such a young age, missing a key part of a family.




Can you talk a little bit about what you lost?


Yeah. That’s a great question, and probably five or ten years ago, I would have cried in response to it. I won’t cry tonight, ‘cause I’m kinda past that phase. But the thing that losing a father has done for me is, there’s kind of a hole inside you. And what I’ve found over the years is that hole gets less and less, and less, as you meet people that care about you, as you get married, have your own children. But I don’t think you can ever replace losing a father.


Is it a feeling of insecurity?


Well, I think that it’s a feeling of not having had a completely healthy, normal childhood. I think all the studies show that the best childhood is one where there’s a husband and there’s a wife. And I didn’t have that. I didn’t have a father and a mother. I had a mother and wonderful uncle, and a wonderful aunt, and a wonderful grandmother, but none of them were my father. And so, I felt that loss throughout my life.


I know you’ve read the studies more than I have, probably, that boys who grow up without a father, for whatever reason, whether it’s divorce or just absenteeism, or death, are more likely to have emotional or behavioral difficulties. They may get more into crime, they tend to be more on the poverty level.




And they tend more to suicide.


Yeah. The good news is, I haven’t had any poverty or crime, or those things. I have felt that there’s a good side to it, as well. I think losing your father makes you more sensitive. I think it makes you more empathetic. And I think as a Family Court judge — and we can talk about that later, but as a Family Court judge, I think I was able to bring a certain sensitivity and compassion, and empathy to that job, because I had lost my father. Many of the young men or women who appeared before me had lost a parent, or had something traumatic happen to them in childhood. And I felt a connection, and also, I felt I had a certain credibility because I had been where they had been. So, you ask, are there good things that come of it? I think there are. Would I have preferred to have had my dad? Absolutely. Is it something that I still long for? Absolutely. But is it all bad? No; I don’t think so. I think there are some very positive things. And the other positive thing is, my four cousins, I view as my brothers. So, instead of having one brother, I have five brothers. And that can only be a good thing.


From his teenage years, Michael Broderick began to eye a career in political office. He attended Stanford University, UCLA Law School, and then was hired for his dream job with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. It seemed that the path to politics lay before him.


So, you’re growing up in Philadelphia.




And, what were your aspirations?


I would say at about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I wanted to go into elected office. I wanted to be a politician.


Were you the guy at school who ran for student council, and …


I’ll tell you a fun story, and I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant. I went to a new school when I was in ninth grade, and at the end of ninth grade, the headmaster called the ninth grade together and asked them to elect a president. And they elected me; which I felt very good about. Tenth grade, the same thing happened. Eleventh grade, the same thing happened. You didn’t run for president of our school. A day was announced in the spring when they voted for the president, and I was blessed to be voted president.


You didn’t have to run for office.


I didn’t run for office.


That doesn’t happen in the real world, of course. [CHUCKLE]


No, it doesn’t. And I didn’t have to raise any money. But what happened down the road in my career is, I worked for a politician. I worked for Tom Bradley, who was the Mayor of Los Angeles.


What did you do for him?


I was a speechwriter for him, I was his policy person on certain subjects, and I was his liaison with the Los Angeles Police Department, with Daryl Gates. And I saw the mayor’s life. I saw his lack of privacy, I saw the interruptions, I saw the criticism, and I realized that I had thin skin. Okay; I do not have thick skin. So, if I wake up in the morning and there’s something in the newspaper criticizing Michael Broderick, that does not roll off of me. That cuts deep to me. And maybe that’s not having a father, in terms of the insecurity. I don’t know.


Also, if family is the most important thing, that doesn’t allow —


It doesn’t.


— you to put family first all the time.

It doesn’t. And I’ll tell you a fun story. It’s not fun, but it’s a compelling story. Tom Bradley told me that he went home on a Friday night to watch a DVD movie with his family. Couldn’t get through it. Why couldn’t he get through it? ‘Cause he got a call from the police chief, he got a call from the fire chief, he got a call from his chief of staff about an emergency. He tried to watch that DVD four Fridays in a row, and never got through it with his family. So, I saw the life of a politician, and I realized that I had to be honest with myself. And I said, You know what, Michael, it’s really not you.


But you like the idea of being a leader and being around people, and mobilizing —




— things.


That, I love.


Michael Broderick married his college sweetheart, Maile Meyer, an entrepreneurial Hawaiian – Chinese woman and force of nature from Kailua, in Windward Oahu. Maile is best known today as the founder of Native Books, a Hawaiian bookstore. But back when they lived on the West Coast and were visiting Hawaii, Michael experienced the Aloha Spirit, and made a life – changing decision.


I had my dream job with Tom Bradley. I loved the job; it was fascinating. And we decided to visit Maile’s family in Hawaii over Christmas.


Because you and Maile had met at Stanford University.


Maile and I had met at Stanford. We were nineteen when we met. We’re fifty – six now, so we’ve grown up together. Maile’s family was still living in Kailua. We came back — this was 1985, and I went to a football game at Aloha Stadium. It must have been the Aloha Bowl; it was in December. It started to rain. And on the screen they flashed: Now that the weather has become inclement — that’s the word they used. Now that the weather has become inclement, please use your poncho instead of your umbrella so the person behind you can see; mahalo. Now, remember, I’m living in Los Angeles. And I looked at that, and I said, That is very cool.


What would they have said in Los Angeles?




[CHUCKLE] Like, do whatever it takes to see that game.


They wouldn’t have done anything like that in Los Angeles. The game ends; an hour later, the game ends and they flash on the screen: Now that the game is over, look and see if your neighbor has left anything of value; and if they have, gently tap them on the shoulder. Mahalo. I drove home to Kailua from Aloha Stadium and I told Maile, We’re moving to Hawaii.


Which you knew she wanted to do; right?


Which I did know she wanted to do. But she had been very, very understanding about my desire to work for Tom Bradley. So, there was no pressure. That’s how I got here.


Because you love those values.


Exactly. What I saw in those two signs was community and value, integrity, warmth. Aloha, basically. And I didn’t feel that in Los Angeles. So, nine months later, we were in Hawaii.


And then, you had to start from scratch as far as a job?


Well, what I did was, when I was working with Tom Bradley, I sent resumes and cover letters to some prominent law firms in Hawaii and was fortunate enough to get some offers. So, when I moved back, I had a job with the Carlsmith firm. Yeah.


But you didn’t stay long?


The private practice of law is extremely important work. It is of great significance to the client, and it’s very intellectually stimulating. But it had no personal meaning to me.


What kind of law were you doing with them?


I was doing labor law, employment law, representing management. So, you don’t pick and choose the cases you work on. You’re told what cases —


You’d rather be the guy on the other side of some issues.


Yeah; that’s right. And the other thing I found out as I worked in labor law as an advocate was that I was much more comfortable as the neutral. I was much more comfortable as the person in the middle. So, what I found myself doing was trying to solve these cases, instead of advocating for my client. And that’s when I realized I really should be in mediation. I see an advertisement in the paper; it’s for the director of the Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution. I apply for the job, and I’m interviewed by a three-person panel, one of the people being, at the time, Associate Justice Ronald Moon, who I had never met, knew nothing about. As the interview is unfolding, one of the three panelists asks me kind of an inappropriate question. [CHUCKLE] And the CJ at the time, Associate Justice Moon, looks at me and goes … he winks.




As if to say, Michael, I know that was an inappropriate question, just hang in there with us. I loved it. You know. So, at the end of the interview, I went home and Maile said, How’d the interview go?   And I said, You know, I don’t know how the interview went, but I met this incredibly cool guy. And that was Ron Moon. And they hired me for the job. But I’ll tell you a funny story. I get a call from his executive assistant, and she says, Come in, you’ve made the final list. So, it’s now down to three. But Associate Justice Moon has asked you to relax. Okay.


Because you were a Type A, L.A. guy?


I said to myself, What does that mean, relax? I think he’s trying to tell me that I was a little too … aggressive. So, I went into the final interview, much less aggressive, much more Hawaii style. Got the job. He hires me, and as he brings me in to tell me I got the job, he said, Michael, do you know how many times you pulled up your socks during the original interview? And I said, No.




He said, I counted; twenty – three times.


You just reached down —


I reached down —


— and you were tugging.


— and pulled up my sock. Obviously, unbeknownst to me, a nervous habit. He said, Do you know how many times you pulled up your socks in the final interview, the one that I had you relax? I said, No. He said, Once.




So, I said, CJ, thank you. And that was the beginning of a twenty, now twenty – three – year relationship with a guy that I would consider my mentor. That’s how it started.


So, you get the job.


I got the job.


Was that a good fit?


It was a perfect fit. Because I was interested in being a mediator, I was interested in being a third party neutral. And as the director of the Center for ADR, what’s what you do. You set up mediation programs, you help set up arbitration programs, and you also mediate and facilitate cases yourself. So, it was a perfect fit.


Years later, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Moon, now retired, would hire Michael Broderick again; this time, to serve as the Administrative Director of the Courts, a position that required him to manage all of the Hawaii State judges and other eighteen hundred employees in Hawaii’s judicial system. Broderick admits it was a tough assignment, and it also led him to another career change.


As the director of the courts, I had had a chance to observe all the different courts; Circuit Court, the Appellate Courts, District Court, and Family Court. And I felt that there was a contribution I could make in Family Court. So, I applied to be a judge, was fortunate to get on the list of six, the Judicial Selection Commission put me on the list of six. And then, guess who’s the appointing authority? Chief Justice Ronald Moon, who appointed me. And I’ll always be grateful for that. And so, for seven and a half years, I was a Family Court judge. Had more than ten thousand cases in Family Court.


Did you think that was the job at which you would retire?


I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that as long as I was gonna be a judge, I was gonna be a Family Court judge. I had no interest in being a Circuit Court judge, I had no interest in being an Appellate Court judge, I had no interest in being a Supreme Court justice. I wanted to be a Family Court judge. Whether it was gonna be the job I would retire from, I didn’t know. I saw themes in Family Court. I saw drug addiction, particularly ice, mental illness, homelessness, domestic violence. Those are four things that kind of rose to the top. And kids who were totally disengaged from their families and from their communities, and from their schools. So, the Child Protective Services calendar are young girls and young boys who have been sexually abused or physically abused. And the judge is deciding whether to terminate the parental rights of the parents. I can’t think of more important work than that. Temporary restraining order cases; women coming in — primarily women, sometimes men, but primarily women coming in and alleging that they’ve been physically or sexually abused by their spouse, or by a boyfriend. I can’t think of a more important case than that. Juvenile criminal cases; young men and young women, sixteen and seventeen, coming before you who have been charged with a crime, and you decide whether to send them to drug treatment, or whether to send them to prison. To me, these cases matter. Okay. They’re not about money. I’m not about money. So, I wasn’t interested in being a judge and presiding over cases that were about money. I was interested in being a judge and presiding over cases that were about people.


Michael Broderick recalls presiding over more than ten thousand cases in Family Court. As time went on, he began to wonder if he was in the right place to make a positive difference with the youth and families in Hawaii. He admits being frustrated that he could not truly help many of the young people who appeared before him in court.


I’ll tell you a story that was one of the saddest cases I ever had. I had sent one kid to prison. They call it Hawaii Correctional Facility, but let’s be honest; it’s like a prison. I had sent one kid there, and then another judge had sent another kid there, and they both ran away at the same time. They were able to escape. Well, one of them had a serious medical condition that if he was not found within, I believe at the time it was forty-eight hours, he was gonna die. So, we found the other kid, and we brought him into my courtroom. I can’t remember his name. Let’s say his name is John. I said, John, do you know where Billy is? Do you know where he is? He said, Yeah, I know where he is. I said, Okay; if we don’t find Billy in now twenty-four hours, he’s gonna die. Do you understand that? I understand that. Where is Billy? I’m not telling you where Billy is. Billy died. Okay? Now, for that kid who was in front of me, that wasn’t prepared to tell me where Billy was, knowing that he would die if we didn’t find him, for me that was too late. I’m not gonna be able to help that young man. He was seventeen at the time. On my domestic violence calendar, it was not unusual for me to have guys come before me who had thirty to thirty-five criminal convictions over the course of twenty, twenty-five years, also to have a crystal meth addiction, to be schizophrenic. I felt, with those folks, there was really very little that I could do. I often found myself wanting to go visit the young kids that I sent to the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. As a judge, I can’t do that, for so many reasons. So, there were some restrictions around being a judge. All those restrictions make sense, they’re there for food reasons; but they were starting to become impediments to me. Now, I need to be fair. I saw miracles happen in Family Court. Okay? I saw a woman who was a drug addict; she said, Judge, take my child. I said, What do you mean, take your child? Take him. I love him, but I love ice more. I returned that child to her two years later, because she went through treatment and got it together. That’s a miracle. So, I don’t want to paint a picture of Family Court that good things don’t happen, because miracles happen in Family Court. Unfortunately, the numbers are not as high as you would want. When I talk about being a Family Court judge, I talk about it as a privilege. It was an honor. But after seven and a half years, and ten thousand cases, the suffering and the misery kinda got to me. And for many of the cases, I felt I couldn’t help them. I felt it was too late. So, most of the folks that appeared before me had been traumatized as children, many of them had been sexually abused and physically abused. They had been ice addicts for many, many years, or alcoholics for many, many years, had long, long, long lists of criminal convictions. So, for a lot of the people that appeared before me, I felt it was too late; I couldn’t help them. The YMCA, I had been on the board of the YMCA and I saw the prevention work they do, the frontend work around drug treatment, around gang prevention. And I said, You know what? I think maybe I’d rather spend the last ten years of my career, the final ten years of my career on the frontend of the continuum, on the prevention end.


Michael Broderick says that decision to step down as a judge to work in the private nonprofit sector may have puzzled some people. But like every other career decision he had made before, his family supported his decision.


People who don’t know me would say, How could you leave that prestigious, prominent position that was so hard to get? People that knew me, people that know me completely got it. When I was sworn in as a judge, which is a pretty big deal, there are a lot of people there. And I said, Maile, I have taken three jobs in a row, and each job I’ve earned less money. And every time, my wife was thrilled for me. After I said that, the induction was over, and we had food for people to share. This is a true story. I had three different women come up to me, independent of each other, and say, Is that true about your wife, she actually supported you taking jobs that paid less? And I said, It is absolutely true. And each of them said, I would never support that for my husband.




That was really … I don’t want to say an eye-opener, because I already knew how cool Maile was. But it was a reaffirmation that I’m living with a special lady.


Michael Broderick made the transition from Family Court judge to CEO of the YMCA of Honolulu, one of Hawaii’s largest private nonprofit organizations. He directed his passion for children and the community to the Y. Many YMCA programs focus on the early intervention of social issues at the core of Family Court, such as substance abuse and child welfare. He loved his new career; however, just a couple of years into the job, he received some troubling personal news.


I was diagnosed with cancer prostate cancer, and I had surgery. And then I had some complications from the surgery around some chronic pain. And what’s changed as a result of that is, for the first two year on the job, I worked every weekend, every single weekend, usually both days. So, if not six and a half days a week, seven days a week. The cancer diagnosis, speaking to you honestly, was a shock. I was fifty – six at the time, I was in great shape, weight – wise, I wasn’t heavy, and all of a sudden I have prostate cancer. And I had a tumor on my prostate, which meant that perhaps it had gone fairly far. So, I then had surgery, and then I had the complications and the pain, some of which I’m still dealing with now. And as a result of that experience, I don’t work nearly as many weekends now. Because I’m about to turn fifty – seven, and I’ve got a little bit of perspective on life, and I think that the work will still be there on Monday. Monday through Friday, I’m working really hard. And some Saturdays, I’m working at the Y if it’s a Y function. I’ve worked the last two Saturdays, and I’ll work the next two Saturdays because of the Y functions, but I’m not going into the office nearly as much. And that is as a result of having cancer, and kind of reevaluating some things.


At the time of this conversation in 2014, Michael Broderick is still experiencing the pain left by those complications. But he remains fully committed to working for the community.


Now, having moved from Family Court and you’re in this frontend line of work with kids, has that brought you the kind of results or feeling that results are — you’re on the verge of?


Yes. It’s been very gratifying for me.   The other thing is, and this sounds a little trite; it’s been more fun. Maile reminds me, I need more fun in my life. I mentioned that I went to an event on Saturday at Aloha Stadium, where we had some former NFL players. We had about three hundred young kids who come from difficult backgrounds. They met the NFL players. It’s called NFL Play60. Then they went through drills over the course of an hour. I got to see the smiles on those kids’ faces. And next week, I go the Youth In Government opening ceremonies. I’m gonna get to see the high school governor sworn in, for example, and the sergeant at arms sworn in. Those things are really joyful for me. And I find that I need that.


YMCA of Honolulu President and CEO Michael Broderick says he’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime to help children and families by helping to prevent the kind of traumas and tragedies he witnessed as a Family Court judge. He say’s he’s excited about running the Y until it’s time for him to retire. Mahalo to Michael Broderick for sharing his story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit


The greatest surprise for me is, I have not met a jerk yet. The people that work at the Y are really kind people. Now, people say to me, Well, yeah, that’s because you were around lawyers for, twenty – five years.


[CHUCKLE] Well, that’s ‘cause you’re the boss. Yes, Mr. Broderick. [CHUCKLE]


You know, I watch people, how they relate to each other, when they don’t know I’m watching. So, the greatest surprise for me and the greatest positive surprise has been how neat the people are who work at the Y.


Jim Burns: His Own Man


Jim Burns reflects on his life as a judge, a father, a husband and a cancer survivor. By the time his father, John A. Burns, became the second Governor of the State of Hawaii, Jim was already a lawyer. He carved out a career path: as a judge in Family Court, and later as Associate Judge and Chief Judge in the Intermediate Court of Appeals. “You don’t live your father’s life, you live your own life, and that’s what I’ve tried to do, without embarrassing him,” Jim says.




I’m told that you really haven’t sat down for a one-on-one interview about you, ever. It’s usually been about your father, it’s about your wife, it’s about something else, the law.


I never thought my life was worthy of publication. I mean, I read my father’s book, and I say, Now, that’s something worthy of writing about. That’s a significant life. I look at my life, I don’t think it’s that significant. John Burns was a very significant person, so who is this guy, Jim Burns? I think you really have to live your own life, and find your own niche and your own space, and become as good at it as you possibly can. You know, you don’t live your father’s life; you live your life, and that’s what I tried to do, without embarrassing him. [CHUCKLE]


John Burns was elected Governor of Hawaii in 1962. By then, his youngest child Jim Burns had finished law school and was trying to find his own path. Jim Burns, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. James Stanton Seishiro Burns went to work on his father’s campaign for governor after returning home from seven years at college and law school on the continent. His father, John A. Burns, won the election, and Jim had no real plans after that. So, he did as he had always done, and followed whatever path opened up for him.


I think back on my life, and it’s amazing. People always ask me, When did you decide to be a lawyer? You know, I really never decided to go to anything. I went step-by-step, and kinda fell into it, piece-by-piece. You know, I graduated high school, and I said, Well, what do I do now? So, I decided, Okay. My father knew of this college in Kansas, and I said, Well, okay, I’ll go. So, I went. And I went to college and I said, Well, what do I take? I didn’t know what to take, so I took political science. And then, I finished college and I said, Well, I got a degree in political science; what do I do now? And my brother knew of a new law school in the East, and he said, Why don’t you try to go to law school? And I said, Well, okay, I think I’ll do that. So, I went to law school. And, you know, just piece-by-piece.


I’ve seen you for years, Jim, and you don’t seem to have anything to prove. I mean, you’ve had a wonderful career, but you don’t really talk about it or exploit it. I mean, you’re just very secure in yourself.


Well, you know, what you say may be—well, it’s true. But that’s how I feel. I don’t think I had anything to prove. I just kept marching, put one foot in front of the other, and just kept going.


But especially when you became an adult and your dad was governor, people must have wanted to know your father through you, and tried to use you.


Well, fortunately, by that time, I was a lawyer. And I laugh, because I know people come up to me and says, What was it like to be raised in Washington Place? And I say, No, I was not raised in Washington Place; I was a lawyer by the time he was elected governor. So, I was a little more able to handle it than if I was younger.


Well, I don’t know what would prepare you, though. I mean, it seems logical to think that you would have gotten, you know, the bad side of it, people trying to exploit you or use you. But then, you would have gotten perks from it, too.


Well, yeah, but you stay away from the perks, because you know what’s gonna happen. You start getting perks, and people are gonna say, Well, the only reason you got it is because you’re the governor’s son.


But they’re gonna assume it anyway.


Yeah; I understand. But you limit it as much as you can. And you know, my father was not one of those that wanted to brag or boast, or anything. He just wanted to get the job done. And I think I was very much the same, and I wanted to stay out of their way. I knew that whatever I did, if it was something wrong, it was gonna be front page, and I knew what the headline was gonna be. Governor’s son did or didn’t.


He never had to worry about that with you.


I stayed out of the way as much as I could. So, everything I ever did, I always said, How would this look on the front page? I didn’t want to embarrass the family. I really didn’t want to be noticed. You know, let him do his job, and I’ll do my thing.


The fact that you became a State Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge, and you couldn’t get involved in politics; was that the plan?


No. Again, I didn’t have any plan. You know. Tell you my plan; go all the way back. I came home from law school, participated in the campaign. The day after he was elected, I got drafted in the United States Army. Refused a commission, did basic training at Helemano. In fact, the picture you have in front of you is—during basic training, he was inaugurated. So, I had to come out of basic training to go to the inauguration.


And why did you turn down the commission?


Because it was three years, and they would send me off to the mainland. Two years, and I stay here.




So, they didn’t know what to do with me. They put me in the legal office, and I did legal assistance for the soldiers and their dependents. And I learned a lot of things, but I learned three. One is family law, landlord tenant law, and how to deal with car dealers. Because that’s the people who were really taking the soldiers for a ride.


Very useful things to know; all those things.


Very useful. So, I get out of the Army, my father’s governor, he’s appointing judges, and so, a lot of things I can’t do in court. I can’t go before a judge that he appointed. Could not.


Well, that’s not a perk. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah. But Family Court, he didn’t appoint them. Sam King, a guy that eventually ran against him, was the Family Court judge, so I could practice in front of Sam King. So, I sort of went down the Family Court road.


Family Court; that sounds like it could be depressing. Lots of divorce, and just inter-family problems.


Never bothered me. You know, you deal with it. People are divorcing, you decide the case, and move on. It didn’t bother me. So anyway, I’m practicing law, but I’m still kinda, you know, What do I do? I’m not gonna live my life doing family law. That’s not what I’m gonna do. So, I went to see my father’s good friend, Matsy Takabuki, for advice and counsel. And he said, Come … come with me. And so, I went with him. Now, I wasn’t his partner, but he mentored me. And that was in Chinn Ho’s office, Capital Investment. So, I got to know that side, and I actually became in-house counsel, sort of, with Capital Investment. So, that took me down another road. And then, Bill Richardson, who my father appointed Chief Justice, at that time started harassing me about, I think you should be a judge. And I kept saying, Judge? Me? Mm; no.


You have the demeanor. I mean, they probably saw that.


I didn’t think of that in those days. But I just didn’t think of myself as being a judge. And so, I said, As long as my father’s around, no. I mean, as long as he’s governor, no. I mean, that would have been ridiculous. So, after my father died, Bill kept harassing me, and I said, Well, let me try it. So, I became a per diem judge, and they put me in Family Court. And the first case I ever had, you know, a little difficult case, and actually, it was a civil case, and I decided it. I was a little shaky, but I decided it. And afterwards, I decided, Hm, I can do this, I can do this. So, I said to Bill, Okay, I’ll go be a judge. And they appointed me Circuit Court judge. And again, they threw me in Family Court, and I was there for three years. And I was just about to move to Civil Court. I said, You know, I’m not gonna stay in Family Court all my life. And just gonna move, and they created the Court of Appeals. And so, Bill said, You’re going to the Court of Appeals. And I said, Mm-mm; no. Write opinions? Oh, my god; that’s awful. Just sit there and read and write, read and write. He said, No, no; you’re going. So, I got drafted onto the Court of Appeals. And that’s how I got there. And fortunately for me, I didn’t know anything about Court of Appeal work, and there was a colleague named Frank Padgett. And Frank taught me everything I know about doing Court of Appeal work. I mean, a brilliant man, and was nice enough to teach me. And two years later, he went to the Supreme Court, and so did Chief Judge Hayashi, went to the Supreme Court, and I was left by my lonesome. So, Governor Ariyoshi made me Chief Judge, and then brought in two other people.


How did that sit with you? ‘Cause you did it for a long time; twenty years.


Yes; twenty-seven years. Yes. It was okay. I enjoyed that. And I was fortunate; I always had great colleagues, great judges to work with. So it was fun. I enjoyed it.


The Intermediate Court of Appeals was a lot of researching, reading, and writing. And Judge Jim Burns led in some landmark decisions.


Perhaps, your best-known decision with the Intermediate Court of Appeals is something that so many people can relate to. It has to do with the neighbor growing their tree over your fence onto your property.


Yes; yes.


Tell me about that.


That was interesting. You know, that was an argument; tree in one yard, hanging over into another yard. And the guy that owned the yard where the tree was hanging over wanted to force the guy owning the tree to cut it.


And this was not a fun mango tree; this was a banyan tree.


That’s correct. And he said, You know, your tree is in my yard, and it’s bothering me; I want you to cut it at least at the property line. He actually wanted the tree cut down. And so, he sued and he came to court. And when I got into it, I found out that Hawaii didn’t have any law whatsoever on the subject. So, I researched it around the country, all over the United States, and then brought it down into three different views. Back in the East, they love trees, so they a pro- tree decision. In the West, California, they hate trees, so they had an anti-tree decision. And then, over in Virginia, they had sort of a modification. So, the question was, pick one of the three, or do a fourth. And and you know, when I say I, I mean, I was the lead person, but we’re talking about two other judges, too, and they agreed. Decided to go with a modified Virginia, which was a love-tree decision, and basically decided that the boundary line would decide. And anything on your side of the boundary line was yours, and anything on the other side of the boundary line was his. Just look straight up, straight down, roots, boundary line. So, if you wanted to cut the roots of his tree, you could. Now, if it killed his tree, too bad for his tree. You know. If his tree was gonna fall down, too bad for his fallen-down tree. You know, that sort of thing. Obviously, you had to warn him about it. And of course, it had to do with mangoes, it had to do with whatever fruit was hanging over. Anything at the boundary line, that’s yours. Now, the one modification was, if the mangoes are gonna fall on top of the house of my roof and it’s gonna put a puka there, then I can make him cut that branch. You can’t force me to do it. And if the roots are gonna go into my plumbing and mess things up, I can make him do it. And that was the ruling.


Elegantly simple.


I see it in Kokua Line all the time. It’s lasted. When we wrote it and published it, I said, Hm, I wonder if the Legislature is gonna do anything? Now, this is interesting about courts. When there is no law, you can say, Well, there’s no law, so we’re not gonna say anything, we’re gonna let the Legislature figure it out. Or, the court can say, Well, we’ll say something, and if the Legislature wants to change it, go ahead. And I often wondered if the Legislature would change it. And no, they didn’t; they left it. And then, every once in a while, I go the Legal Google to find out how they’re doing it across the country. And a whole lot of states followed us. Now, I look at the mango from my neighbors, and I say, That’s mine.


[CHUCKLE] What else? What are some of the other decisions that you remember most?


I sat on the Supreme Court on the same-sex marriage case, in the lower court, this same-sex couple said, We want a marriage license and they won’t give it to us. And the Circuit Court judge says, You’re not entitled to it, and just threw it out, didn’t even have an evidentiary hearing. Just said, No. And so, it got appealed, and I sat on the Supreme Court as a replacement for a judge who had to recuse himself. And the decision by the Supreme Court was, two-one- two. Two said, mm, essentially, yes. Although it was, you gotta go back to the lower court to figure out a few things, but essentially, their answer was, yes. And there were two that said, no. No; we agree with the lower court. And I was the guy in the middle. I agreed with the folks who said, Yes, go back to trial court, but I had not yet made a decision as to whether it was gonna be yes or no. I wanted the trial court to have evidentiary hearing, evidence, facts, testimony, et cetera, and make findings before I would come to any decision. And one of the questions I wrote in there for the lower court to determine was, whether same-sex is biologically fated, or choice. Because at that time, you know, the opponents were saying, It’s choice. And there are still people who say that. And so I said, No, it goes to the trial court, you go listen to all the experts, and you come to a decision. Is it choice, or not? Is it biologically fated, or not? What are the facts? But it never got back to the Supremes, because eventually, the law was changed.


How did you feel? It was last year, as we speak, in 2014, that the Legislature ratified same-sex marriage.


Well, if I were in the Legislature, I would have voted to ratify it, to allow it. Yes; I am pro same-sex marriage. Back in those days, I think you needed a little more facts, but I think you have enough facts now. I think it’s biologically fated.


This makes me think of that decision that your father had to make about abortion. And I think he struggled with it.




He was a dedicated Catholic.




And he felt very strongly personally about it. But could you talk a little bit about that, and how you feel about that method of determining?


Well, you know, he and I talked about it in that time, I think because of, you know, my birth situation.


Because, yeah, all the medical people said you should have been aborted.


And then, I wouldn’t be here if there had been an abortion. So, we did have a chat about it. And he struggled with it. But I mean, he explained it quite well. Basically, you know, I have my own private views, but as governor, I don’t impose my private views on the world. I go with what is best for the constituents. And given there’s a lot of anti-people and a lot pro-people, it’s mixed in between, so he went with that modified bill. He didn’t approve it. You know, he let it go without his signature, but it became law.


You’re not a politician, but you ran for office.


Yeah. Actually, twice, I think. One for Constitution Convention. But you know, I live in Kailua. My father never, ever won in Kailua. Every time he ran, never won in Kailua. Kailua is a little bit Republican. So, I ran for Con Con because, you know, I’m a lawyer, and Con Con would be a good place for me. But I ran for the House of Representatives once, and I did it just to see what it felt like. And I knew I wasn’t gonna win, but I just wanted to say, Well, you know, throw my name in, and besides, you need some name on the Democratic side. And very quickly, I decided, No, I don’t like this.


What didn’t you like?


I don’t like asking people to vote for me. You know, I don’t like standing up and saying, I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that. I just didn’t like it.


Jim Burns’ parents weren’t the only well-known people in his life. He had occasion to meet many celebrities, including Emme Tomimbang, whose broadcast journalism and television hosting career made her a household name. As of this conversation in 2014, they’ve been married for twenty-seven years, and he still calls her his soul mate. Both Jim and Emme have recently had serious health problems, and they’ve been able to help each other through them.


How did you two get together?


Oh, boy. Again, piece-by-piece. Just unintentional. I mean, I watched her on television, so I knew of her. I think, you know, the first time that I became more fully conscious about her was Chinn Ho’s eightieth birthday. And I took my mother; we went to the birthday, and Emme gave the birthday speech. And I was thoroughly impressed with her ability to get up in front of an audience and give that kind of a talk. I sure could not have done it. And I’m going, Wow, you know, that’s pretty good. So, after the speech, I said to her, quite innocently, you know, and I was trying to compliment her, not in a direct way, I guess, which isn’t my method of doing things. And I said, Well, gosh, I hope you speak at my eightieth. That’s all I said. And she said, Oh, thank you, and we moved on.


You’re seventy-seven now.


I keep reminding her.




Time’s getting short.


Got a speech coming up.


She better start preparing her speech. So, I’m being very nice to her, so that she gives me a good speech.


Did people consider you an odd couple? You’re a judge, she’s a television newscaster.


I’m sure they did. You know. Why did she marry him? Why did he marry her? What are they doing together? That sort of thing. And, you know, again, we have to dance a little bit, we had to, to make sure her occupation didn’t interfere with mine, my occupation didn’t interfere with hers, and we didn’t overstep our bounds one way or the other, being very cautious about that.


And that’s all in the past now, because she’s left that profession, the news profession anyway, and you’re not judging anymore.


Yeah; I’m starting to feel a little freer.


[CHUCKLE] With Emme?


Well, not only with her, but with the world. A little freer. You know, I get this itch now to just, you know, say what I feel, and do what I like, and that sort of thing. Not be too cautious about it.


Because that was always in your mind; right?




Do you and Emme have children?


Uh, no; no children. But we have a puppy. Now, this puppy, he was over a hundred pounds; now we got him down to a little less than hundred pounds. He’s a big Rottweiler. But that’s’ her number two soul mate. I don’t know if you know, but Emme suffered an aneurism, broken aneurism and collapsed, and Rufus kept her awake and helped her get to the phone so she could call me, so I could call 911. So, essentially, saved her life, and so, they became even closer. So, now, I’m number three in the house.




It starts with Emme, then you go to Rufus, then you come to me.




But that’s okay. You know, I don’t mind. He saved her life, so I’ll give him second place.


And so, the last few years have seen you and Emme dealing with health problems.




Each of you has had health problems, serious health problems.


Yeah; the two of us were indestructible, and then all of a sudden …


That’s true. Both of you worked long, hard hours.




For many, many years.




And had good health; right?


It came at me totally unexpected. You know, I had a few minor issues here and there, you know. This thing, I gotta take a pill for; that thing, I gotta take a pill for. And then all of a sudden, I had a lump on one side of my throat, went to the doctor, and I said, What’s this? And he said, Hm, gotta check that out. Checked it out, and I had Stage 4 throat cancer.


Stage 4.


Stage 4 throat cancer. But fortunately, again, you know, the doctor says, Well, we might be able to, so radiation, chemotherapy, and lots of tender care from my Filipino nurse. And so that was, what, latter part of 2011. And here I am today.


Both of you; you’ve had, you know, fallout from your brush with what really could have been death.




And so has Emme.


Yes. And so, I mean, if you look at us, we’re medical marvels. I think the doctors should parade us. Hey, this is what doctors can do for you. Because you know, they have really done an amazing job on both of us. We’re just very fortunate to be here, and in the condition we are. We can’t do the twenty-four-hour bit, but you know, we still can do the twelve-hour bit.


You’ve had a remarkable career, but you don’t feel like you need to say that.


No; no. Well, you know, I mean, I do the best I can, with what I’ve got, and you know, I’m surprised that I got this far. It shocked me. If you’d asked me in high school, This is gonna be your life, I would have said, You’re smoking something. No; that can’t be me. But you know, I got here, say thanks to my parents that I got this far. You know, smart enough to marry Emme Tomimbang.


And it doesn’t bother you to be with a larger-than-life individual. Because, you know, Emme’s media reach is so large.


Yeah; she’s larger than me. Yes. I enjoy watching it.


But I know you know, when you say that, that you have totally different skills.




And they’re complimentary.


Yes; yes. I kid people. She and I make one good brain. I have a good left brain, she has a good right brain, and together, we make one good brain.


Humor mixed with humility has come to be a trademark of Jim Burns. He can argue that he is just a local boy who made his way, piece-by-piece; but that approach took him all the way to one of the most prominent judicial posts in Hawaii. Mahalo to retired Judge Jim Burns of Kailua, Oahu for sharing his stories with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store or visit


You have two children from a previous marriage.




What do they do?


Yes. I have two wonderful children. My daughter Meredith, she graduates from high school, and goes off to college. And then, she goes off to other countries to work in refugee projects. And then, she says, I’m going to law school. And I almost fell off the chair. I mean, You are? So, she goes to law school, gets a degree, and now she is an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board here in Hawaii. And then, my son, same thing. Graduates high school, goes to college on the mainland. He went to Wheaton, eventually got himself into education, and he now is the principal of Aina Haina Elementary. And from what I hear, doing quite well there. I always check with his students every time I meet one. I say, Who’s your principal? They tell me, and I say, How’s he doing? They say, Oh, he’s doing great. I say, Fine; you tell him, you tell him you met his daddy.