Honoring The Honorable Judge Burns

The Aloha Chapter of the American Inns of Court held its annual meeting last week. The venue was Waialae Country Club, the dinner a standard buffet. But the program went far beyond the standard. This year the almost three-decade-old legal mentoring organization received a new name: The Hon. James S. Burns Aloha Chapter of the Inns of Court.

Burns, the first judge to preside over Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, was one of the moving forces behind the founding of the Aloha chapter. Maura Okamoto, an attorney who clerked for Burns at the ICA in 1997, went further: “Judge Burns started the Aloha chapter and he kept it going. Burns also set the tone. On the Mainland the Inns of Court can be pretty hoity toity organizations, but not with Judge Burns. He’s very open to learning and sharing knowledge. He invites everyone in.”

Those invited in are mostly second-year law students. For one academic year they meet monthly with experienced local attorneys and judges under whose guidance they prepare cases in civil, criminal and family law.

“Each student takes a part of the case and brings it to the group,” says Annette Andrews, an attorney, former Burns clerk at the ICA and self-described first gofer of the Aloha chapter. “At the final meeting of the year, the cases go to trial. It’s a lot of work, and the driving force behind it is Judge Burns. He’s done a tremendous job, and we all love him so much.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald led the night’s tributes: “Jim Burns built a court from the ground up. When I succeeded him, it was obvious that the ICA people loved it there.

“Jim created that atmosphere. He’s a humble person with a sense of humor and an incredible work ethic. When I arrived, he could have adopted a ‘not in my house’ attitude. But he helped and supported me. Judge Burns has lent a hand to so many, it’s fitting that his name should be on an organization that’s about helping young lawyers and students. He’s one of the finest judges and leaders Hawaii has ever known.”

Recktenwald was followed by attorney Jim Kawashima and Judge Marie Milks. Kawashima remembered Burns as “the one person responsible” for the Aloha chapter: “Jim did everything, including putting out the beer at the beginning of our meetings.” Milks praised him, as “gentle, kind and encouraging,” despite the ICA’s reversals of some of her lower court decisions.

Eleven students from the current class of Aloha chapter put on a skit and sang Burns a song. Attorneys Susan Ichinose and Randall Chung and Judge Gary Chang roasted the guest of honor. Entertainer Willie K paid a soaring musical tribute to his “brother.”

Burns sat through it all, no mean feat for someone who had been diagnosed with cancer late last year, undergone treatment and been hospitalized. He had the evening’s last word.

“When you go through what I’ve been through, you start to think about your life, what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong. The Aloha Chapter of the Inns of Court, without a doubt, is one I did right. I appreciate being recognized. I wanted to simplify the law for young people, help them to understand its practical side. … I appreciate being recognized.”

With that, a good and gentle man, a teacher, said, “Thank you and good night.”