Ed Nakamura

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Ed Nakamura

Ed Nakamura was a Hawaii jurist.


The life of Nakamura (1922-1997) is reverently, warmly and revealingly told in a new biography by Tom Coffman, the former Honolulu Star-Bulletin journalist turned author and film producer.

"I Respectfully Dissent" (University of Hawaii Press; 184 pages) manages to capture the down-to-earth qualities of Nakamura, the 442nd veteran of World War II, labor lawyer, University of Hawaii regent and associate justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Nakamura was there when Hawaii Japanese Americans returned from the war to help wrest control of the territory from the white business oligarchy. He counseled the most important labor group of his day, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and withered suspicion of Communist leanings. He led the UH Regents through a time of Vietnam War protests and the Oliver Lee tenure saga. He was instrumental in enactment of the 1974 Prepaid Health Care Act. He served on the William S. Richardson court that defined Hawaii land and water use laws.

And, he opposed development of Sandy Beach (from whence springs the "dissent" in Coffman's book title), fought mismanagement in the state's Employees' Retirement System, testified against cronyism in the Waihee Administration and had a hand in the "Broken Trust" essay that rattled the Bishop Estate.

Coffman makes clear, Nakamura felt that Hawaii Democrats had strayed from the principles that catapulted them to power and created a state that may have been the most progressive of all in the nation.

Coffman is especially good in the chapters that cover Nakamura's work for the IWLU in the era of Jack Hall and on the Supreme Court with Richardson. By interviewing people who knew Nakamura at the time — they include Ah Quon McElrath during the labor years and Ed Case in the court years (Mazie Hirono was also interviewed).[1]

Nakamura was born in Honolulu on Oct. 9, 1922, the son of immigrant laborers. A self-described liberal, he was one of the many Japanese-American veterans of World War II who went to college on the GI bill and joined the Democratic Party, helping it transform Hawaii into a society that offered more educational and employment opportunities for non-Caucasians.

Although he considered himself simply a "foot soldier" in the campaigns of John Burns, who would eventually become governor, many considered Nakamura to be a key architect of the Democratic revolution.

After graduating from the University of Chicago law school in 1951, in the same class with U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, Nakamura joined Bouslog & Symonds, then the only labor law firm in Hawaii at a time when lawyers were fearful of representing workers. It was when McCarthyism fanned congressional investigations into organized labor in search of "subversive activities."[2]

Bouslog & Symonds

Jim King attended Punahou School, the University of Hawaii, and graduated from Georgetown University, before serving in the US Army in 1942-1945

After the war, King obtained a Law Degree in 1948 from Columbia University. He returned to Hawaii and, keeping his promise to assist workers and foster social progress, he joined the law firm of Bouslog & Symonds in 1949. The firm attracted many talented and progressive attorneys like King who wanted to work for social justice and help working class people.

Other attorneys who worked for the firm included Lowell Chun-Hoon, Hideki Nakamura and Ed Nakamura who also served as chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

When the principal partners of the law firm, Harriet Bouslog and Myer Symonds retired, the attorneys in the firm continued serving the labor community as the law firm of King, Nakamura and Chun-Hoon and the law firm of Takahashi, Vasconcellos, (and Covert). Both law firms repre- sented the ILWU and other unions, as well as thousands of injured workers with their workers compensation cases. [3]

Hirono connection

Having made the slow transition from political outsider in the 1950s to insider in the 1970s, then having taken a long sabbatical from capitol politics as a justice, Ed Nakamura was free [in his retirement] to reinvent himself in political terms. He returned to the State Capitol for the 1991 legislative session, working part-time as a volunteer in the office of Democratic Rep. Dwight Takamine, chair of the House Labor Committee and son of the ILWU’s Yoshito Takamine. He also became better acquainted with a network of younger legislators.

One of these younger lawmakers was Mazie Hirono, who would cast herself in the tradition of Nakamura’s friend and classmate, Patsy Mink. In 1991, Hirono represented a midtown House district and chaired the House Consumer Protection Committee, which worked closely with the Labor Committee on such issues as worker’s compensation, a hot item during this period.

Hirono said, “He had perspective on where Democrats came from and what they stood for. I liked the fact that here was a guy who had fought many battles.” Nakamura eventually helped organize Hirono’s successful campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994.[4]