As a trial lawyer with more than 30 years experience, Jim Bickerton has represented several high-profile clients, including former Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi, New Yorker magazine and Simon & Schuster publishing.
Recently, another significant lawsuit has made its way to his caseload, featuring mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano. In a libel and slander case, Cayetano has filed suit against Pacific Resource Partnership, PRP executive director John White and PRP partner Hawaii Carpenter’s Union for their recent push poll activity and radio and TV advertisements that accuse Cayetano of profiting from illegal campaign funding, distributing government contracts in exchange for contributions and keeping contributions for himself.
With no personal attachment to Cayetano’s campaign, Bickerton says one of the reasons he took this pro bono case was because the PRP advertisements go beyond common campaign jabbing, and enter a realm of criminal accusation.
“It is one thing to say that somebody believes in a policy with which you don’t agree. That is what politicians do all day, they criticize each other. But to say that an opponent has broken the law and engaged in criminal activity, then you better have some proof of that. That is the line I think they crossed here,” says Bickerton,who was featured on MidWeek’s cover June 23, 1993.
Bickerton understands that nationally courts have made libel and slander cases much more difficult, especially when a person with a strong public presence is involved. But he also accepts Cayetano’s opinion of the effect these types of campaign tactics could have on the public’s opinion both in this and future elections.
“He (Cayetano) believes that if this sort of campaigning is allowed to work, it will be with us in every election,” says Bickerton.
“A guy like him (Cayetano) may be able to overcome it because he is a two-term governor and well known, but he says what person with ideals would enter the fray and try to strive for public office if they had to face this kind of attack, where it is OK to accuse people of criminal activity when it is false.”
The magnitude of the Cayetano case is very high, but so are other cases Bickerton is currently handling. They include suits which represent the vulnerability and protection of free public space in Hawaii and what is at jeopardy if they are lost.
Most notably Bickerton represents Kaimana Beach Coalition in its attempt to keep the space that will replace the Natatorium War Memorial a free and public commodity, most reasonably a beach. He also represents Haleiwa Beach Park Coalition in its fight to stop a sale that would see sections of Haleiwa Beach Park go to a private developer.
In response to the Haleiwa Beach Park Coalition and Save Kaimana Beach Coalition suits, Bickerton says, “If we keep letting this happen, pretty soon we’ll wake up and realize there is nothing public anymore, nothing that is free anymore, and that will be a sad day. That is a theme in my cases which I have been coming across lately.”