Monday, June 5, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Broken Paddle Law

Maybe the first sign was the Kona patrol car parked at midnight in the median of an empty, four-lane highway. The cab driver worried he might be driving over the limit of 45, on a road that would still be crowded with cars going 80 in Southern California.

I was to find that a lot of things move slower on the Big Island.

The cabbie, a talkative and uncensored character, delivered us to the King Kamehameha hotel, a grand hotel with a big lobby that turned into a long hall with a beautiful, wooden outrigger canoe set among displays explaining the region's history.

The hotel was also a museum. One panel was about the Law of the Broken Paddle.

King Kamehameha was sailing along the shore, so the story goes, and came on land to attack a group of natives fishing in a territory he considered his. In the fight, his foot stuck in a lava rock crevice and a fisherman broke his paddle over the king's head.

Years later, Kamehameha had the fisherman brought before him. The man thought his days were over, but the king instead apologized and declared that all land in Hawaii belonged to all Hawaiians, an edict known as the Law of the Broken Paddle.

In a later generation, Christian missionaries and English statesmen convinced the royal family that property should be private. Believing that their island was sacred and would long outlast them, Hawaiians gave little value to their new property rights and quickly sold them to foreigners.

But Kamehameha's original edict survives in part today as a state law declaring the shoreline common property and giving all Hawaiians access to the shore. As a result, even though the King Kamehameha hotel sits on one of the few beaches in the area, the beach is open to all.

A stop by the regional courthouse showed, if not a connection, then certainly a parallel between the notion of a vast natural asset that is commonly accessible and an open public government that is similarly accessible.

Hawaii's Third Circuit is just outside Kona, housed in an old hospital, with the small doorways, narrow hallways and post-WWII wood construction. It is on a hillside and from its main parking lot, you have, through the trees, a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean.

A short walk through the courthouse gets us to the clerk's office, with a public area only slightly bigger than a closet. In that small space is a table with public copies of the new filings, generally put out the day the documents are filed.

We did not have to negotiate, fight for or even ask for access. The stuff was already sitting out there for the public and any journalist who wandered in.

It was what I call "old school access."

Kona is the dry side of the island and Hilo is on the wet and volcanic side. Driving from one to the other requires passage through a stark but stunning landscape of lava.

The gentle climate's ability to grow just about anything is manifested by an occasional green shoot coming up through cracks in lava beds where some sections have the glassy sheen of obsidian.

Like the courthouse access, the local newspaper is solid and traditional, informing readers of fires started by current lava flows, alongside a report on the state's remarkably low unemployment rate resulting from a steady flow of free-spending tourists from the U.S., Korea, China and Japan.

Hilo is considered to have the darkest and poorest population of the state, but its courthouse followed the same procedures as its cousin on the island's sunny side. The recent civil filings, criminal filings and court calendars were on posts on brown clipboards just outside the intake windows, wide open, current access to the court record.

We were on a work trip to set up court coverage, hopping from island to island and court to court. On O'ahu, we stayed at the Parc Hotel in Waikiki, where the receptionist by default showed us the rules in Japanese. Seeing our blank looks, she flipped the card to the English side.

The rooms were small, Japanese style, but well laid out and comfortable with, for a slight extra fee, a grand view of the ocean. Any wait in the lobby was accompanied by the entertainment of watching an exotic parade of tourists from Asia, America and Europe.

A short drive took us to O'ahu's First Circuit Court in Honolulu, which was just as open and accessible as those on the neighbor islands.

At 4 p.m., as the intake windows were about to close, a clerk brought the day's new civil actions across the hall to the records room where journalists for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and now CNS, review them for news.

The access was so consistent among the islands that I suspected a rule. And indeed the statewide rules of civil procedure require that a filer bring a second copy to court, which is made available to the public and press at the end of the day.

Old school access, a beautiful thing to behold.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.