Talking Story With I Respect Dissent Author Tom Coffman About Former Supreme Court Justice Edward Nakamura And His Lonely But Principled Devotion To Workers Rights

Not long ago a local attorney told me that during Judge Richard Pollack’s recent swearing-in to the Hawaii Supreme Court, Pollack wore a robe that had earlier been worn by the late Justice Edward Nakamura. Not often spoken of today, Nakamura was a giant in Hawaii’s post-war labor and legal history. A powerful attorney and lobbyist for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in Honolulu, Nakamura eventually found himself appointed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

He’s also the subject of a new biography from Tom Coffman, the former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter who’s written detailed and immensely readable history books like Nation Within, a sprawling 2009 work that thoroughly eviscerated the white missionaries–and their American military and political supporters–who toppled Queen Liliuokalani’s government in the 1890s. The new book, titled I Respectfully Dissent, discusses Nakamura’s stint in the 522nd Artillery Battalion (part of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team) during World War II, his time as a dedicated labor lawyer for the ILWU and his 10-year-term on the Hawaii Supreme Court in the 1970s and ‘80s, where he was known more for principled dissent than for majority opinions.

Nakamura’s life was never easy. Being a young labor lawyer in 1950s Honolulu brought inevitable whispers of communist sympathy, but Coffman makes clear that Nakamura never strayed from working on behalf of working people or his own principles. While others from his law classes were racking up huge hourly rates, Nakamura was nearly as poorly paid as the laborers he represented–a product of his view that attorneys shouldn’t live better than their clients. It was often lonely, and Nakamura’s toughest fight came near the end of his life, when he worked hard to separate the Hawaii Supreme Court from its old ties to the powerful Bishop Estate, which he had long considered a terrible conflict of interest. Nakamura died in 1997 after a heart attack. He was 74.

“His tenure on the Hawai‘i Supreme Court helped create a body of common law for a democratic, progressive, and liberal state on equal footing with the rest of the United States,” wrote Wailuku attorney Ben Lowenthal in an essay on Nakamura’s judicial philosophy that appears as the book’s concluding chapter. “His opinions have taught me to be sensitive to our state’s independent constitution and our relatively new common law.”

On Aug. 17, I spoke to Coffman by phone:

MAUITIME: Your most recent book was Nation Within, which I thought was very different than I Respectfully Dissent. Why write about Edward Nakamura?

TOM COFFMAN: It was a commissioned biography, but my answer goes beyond that. I was a political reporter at the capitol during this whole period. I started in 1968 and found it very intensely interesting. I knew Nakamura–not well, but he had a great reputation, though it was very understated. He fell equidistantly between [former Hawaii Governor] Jack Burns and [former ILWU leader] Jack Hall, the gigantic figures of that period.

MT: What do you think was Nakamura’s legacy?

TC: I was at a book launch event last night that was interesting. There were a lot of public interest lawyers and a lot of law school representation. There were a few jurists, like Judge Dan Foley. He’s still an inspirational figure for public interest law.

MT: That’s interesting, because in the book you talk about how near the end of his life Nakamura was basically lamenting the fact that young lawyers weren’t going into labor law like he did.

TC: I think that’s still the case. I see middle-aged public interest law people. I don’t see any young labor lawyers. It’s too much to hope for, but maybe the existence of this book will strengthen public interest law at law schools. Books don’t generally lead people to any specific action, but in this case, maybe it will.

MT: What do you think was Nakamura’s greatest achievement?

TC: The passage of the ILWU labor program in the late 1960s, early 1970s. He calmly kept his head and kept his eye on getting results. He worked his way through the back-biting and factionalism and finally saw it through. And in that, his biggest victory was prepaid health care.

MT: Which is fascinating because it turned out to be a detriment to the union, since now everyone in the state–not just union members–had health care.

TC: That did happen. It was not the way you’d think it would turn out. But I think it reflected great credit on the ILWU and on Nakamura.

MT: Did you find anything questionable or distasteful about Nakamura in your research?

TC: I knew a lot about Nakamura before I ever decided to take on this project. He had no big flaws. He had an upstanding personal life and was selfless in his work life. He was always focused, industrious. He did engage in a lot of drinking after the war–I wrote about that.

MT: Now you knew Nakamura when you were a reporter. Did you come across anything during your research that surprised you?

TC: A lot of the things I learned. But I knew he had a tremendous impact on labor law. I knew he was a well-respected jurist. I was surprised that he was a such a force behind the “Broken Trust” movement–that he was behind the separation of the Supreme Court from the Bishop Estate trustees.

I did know that he had been very upset about the employee retirement system. Jim Dooley had written about it. There were really interesting stories about his retirement, most of which I stumbled onto.

MT: What was it like dealing with Nakamura, who was an ILWU lobbyist at the time, when you were a reporter?

TC: He was very charming, very soft spoken. There was no posturing and no egotism. You know what covering a capitol is like–an environment of egos and posturing. Nakamura had absolutely none of that. He was purposeful, not manipulative in any way and not full of himself. I think he was a little bit enthused by the give and take of a given day. That was his indulgence. There’s a little passage in the book about how he had access to the press box at the capitol.

MT: Yes, I thought that was odd, having previously covered the state capitol in Sacramento. To have a lobbyist in the press box was very unusual.

TC: It was unusual, but showed the ILWU’s extraordinary leverage at the capitol. There was an unwritten understanding that he had access to the box even though he was a lobbyist. But he played his part by sitting quietly and back and being very courtly and gentlemanly in his behavior.

MT: How do you think the Supreme Court has changed since Nakamura’s time on the bench?

TC: I’m not enough of a court observer to really answer that. But I do think that the Supreme Court was somewhat healed and strengthened by separating itself from the Bishop Estate and that was part of his legacy. He was really obsessed with achieving that.
I went to the Supreme Court recently and was impressed with the justices. I think it’s doing better than some of our other institutions.

MT: Well, thank you very much. That was pretty much what I want to ask you.

TC: Let me ask you something. You said Nation Within and I Respectfully Dissent were different books. I think they’re very similar. Why do you think they’re different?

MT: Well, mainly in terms of tone. Nation Within is a brutal takedown of those who seized power from the Hawaiian Kingdom, whereas your book on Nakamura is a positive story about someone in power who was doing good. Nation Within was about bad guys, and I Respectfully Dissent was about a good guy.

TC: That’s interesting. You know, I’m working on a book now about the World War II home front. Were people back then collaborators with the martial law government or were they heroes? The question of good guys and bad guys really gets garbled.