Lanky, lean, and still the spitting image of his father, the late Gov. John A. Burns who was a major architect of modern-day Hawai‘i, retired Judge James S. Burns is building an enduring legacy of his own at the William S. Richardson School of Law.
As the long-time Chief Judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals, Burns played a key role in developing contemporary family law as well as other legal areas in Hawai‘i. “He became known as ‘The Father of Modern Hawai‘i Family Law,’ because of the many family law decisions he penned,” said Associate Professor Calvin Pang, a friend and long-time colleague.
Now in retirement, the Judge has chosen to spend time not only mentoring law students but also creating a lush green oasis of rustling ti plants for them as a place for reflection and renewal in the midst of the University of Hawai‘i Law School. The Law
School Alumni Association also pitched in, helping plant a ground cover of ferns among the ti. This group oversees the other two courtyard planters.
“I love to see plants grow,” Judge Burns said on a recent afternoon, poking around the edges of his forest of colorful ti plants at the Diamond Head end of the courtyard to make sure no pests had taken up residence. “I have a hard time being where there aren’t plants … When I saw that the courtyard planter was barren, and the other part was infested with weeds and unsightly ground cover, I decided to change it.”
The towering ti garden he has created in one of the courtyard planters is a tribute not just to his love of plants and making things grow, but to his patience and resilience.
Burns has been through two difficult years, first in fighting stage 4 throat cancer – he’s beaten it so far – and then in helping his wife, TV journalist and documentary filmmaker Emme Tomimbang, through recuperation and recovery after a ruptured brain aneurysm last summer.
But even these challenges haven’t dampened his characteristic wry wit. “The Burns-Tomimbang Nursing Home is full,” he told a colleague recently. “Its maximum occupancy is two.”
Yet he still thrives near his plants – especially the lush garden at his Kailua home, and that in the Law School’s central courtyard, where he has full rein to plant at will. Many Sundays, when the campus is quiet, he’s here, puttering undisturbed, or climbing into planted beds to weed, spray and prune, shaping a place of respite to which students gravitate for its shady recesses and welcoming foliage.
“Most of the students love Hawai‘i and this reminds us why we’re here – to protect Hawai‘i and keep it beautiful,” says first-year law student Loren Seehase, who says she finds the garden “very relaxing.
“Our school would not be the same without this courtyard,” says Seehase.
Burns’ son tells friends that his dad “can green anything up” and the Judge repeatedly proves those words. When his mother, Hawai‘i’s gracious former First Lady Beatrice Burns was alive, the judge grew roses just for her, a challenge in Hawai‘i’s heat. Though she passed away 25 years ago, he still makes sure her roses are strong and healthy and he regularly presents them to Law School personnel.
Kristi Shiraki, secretary to Law Dean Avi Soifer, is often on the receiving end of these gifts, and marvels how a single one of Burns’ roses can make visitors stop in their tracks. “One time he brought in at least five different roses - pink, red, white, lavendar and yellow…” she said, “and each had its own distinct scent.”
It was Soifer who first invited Judge Burns to become a member of the Law School ‘ohana, both to anchor it firmly to Hawai‘i’s past and to honor Judge Burns, one of the state’s living legends, who embodies both those themes.
“It is wonderful to have Judge Burns with us on a regular basis,” said Dean Soifer. “He is remarkably unassuming, yet we all benefit from his deep knowledge of Hawai‘i and our law and his common sense—and everybody appreciates his dry sense of humor.”
In the decade since Burns began planting his Law School garden - with an occasional blue ginger - he has collected a variety of multi-colored ti, haunting nurseries to find those with unusual leaves or shades of green and pink. Still, he prefers native plants, and has also added five varieties of indigenous hibiscus. Yet his prize plants are the ti that tower high above the planters.
These were the stalks of the large green leaf ti cuttings used during the memorial for the late Chief Judge William S. Richardson – “CJ” as he is still fondly known - who was the namesake for the state’s only Law School. They sprouted and grew, and now some are more than 7 feet tall.
“CJ” Richardson was a close friend of Judge Burns and of his father. In 1962, the senior Burns was elected Governor and Richardson was elected Lieutenant Governor. In 1965, Burns appointed Richardson to be Hawai‘i’s Chief Justice. As close allies they helped advance workers and ethnic minorities in Hawai’i. Richardson’s legal opinions deeply etched Native Hawaiian cultural mores into modern Hawai‘i law.
“It is particularly fitting,” said Dean Soifer, “that the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the William S. Richardson Law School honor the partnership of these two giants and that our two institutions really do work together unusually well.”
Like his father before him, Judge Burns has a habit of down-playing personal praise with a brisk hand wave. He similarly prefers to stay in the background, despite an illustrious career.
“Recently, the Hawai‘i Chapter of the American Inns of Court, a group that brings top-notch attorneys and judges into the company of law students, renamed itself the ‘James S. Burns Aloha Chapter, American Inns of Court IV’ because of Judge Burns’ many contributions,” notes Pang.
While the honors have been many, with typical humility Burns feels it’s his honor to work with the plants that help turn the Law School’s spacious open-air courtyard into a place that brings students together to study, talk story, or simply to enjoy the surroundings of a truly special place.