The final gavel: Judge Greg Nakamura retires after almost three decades on bench

  • 3rd Circuit Chief Judge Greg K. Nakamura sports kukui nut lei Wednesday in his chambers at the Hilo Courthouse. He is officially retired Saturday after almost three decades on the bench. (JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — After 29 years on the bench on the Big Island, Chief 3rd Circuit Judge Greg K. Nakamura is retired.

The final gavel for the 67-year-old jurist in a Hilo Circuit courtroom was on Wednesday, where he has presided since 1994. Before that, he was a District Family Judge in Kona.

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“You know, they say that you know when you’re ready to retire. And that’s what has happened to me,” said Nakamura, who became the Big Island circuit’s chief judge in 2017 upon the retirement of Kona Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra, who served 28 years on the bench.

As for his plans, the soft-spoken Nakamura, who’s married with a son, daughter and two grandchildren, said he doesn’t “plan on doing much lawyer work” after almost three decades as a judge.

“Primarily, I’ll start with doing a lot of traveling, I think. And I’ll spend a little more time on the golf course, play a little more tennis, maybe,” he said. “I want to read, actually. A lot of time was spent reading lawyer stuff. I want to get out of that and start reading other subjects — foreign policy, international relations, history.”

Nakamura, who was a civil litigator prior to assuming the bench in Kona in 1990, clerked for the legendary Hilo Circuit Judge Ernest Kubota and succeeded Hilo Circuit Judge Shunichi Kimura, who had been Hawaii County’s first mayor.

“Judge Kimura was, in my mind, a legend. I could never replace Judge Kimura, so I never say that,” replied Nakamura — who is both economical and careful with his words — to a poorly phrased question. “What I say is, ‘I assumed his position.’

“I thought that I had to be my own person, my own judge. So I didn’t think of comparing myself to Judge Kimura.”

Nakamura was the presiding judge on numerous high-profile cases, including those of Kenneth Mathison, a former Big Island police sergeant who died in prison four years ago this month for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of his wife, Yvonne; Tad Mason, serving a life sentence for the 1991 murder of prostitute Juliana “Trish” Laysa; and Peter Kema Sr., who was sentenced in 2017 to 20 years imprisonment for manslaughter for the 1997 death of his son Peter Kema Jr., aka “Peter Boy,” in perhaps the most notorious missing child turned murder cases in Hawaii history.

He said while he remembers the high-publicity cases, he doesn’t consider any case he presided over a signature case.

“What was more important to me was to work at the ordinary cases every day,” Nakamura said.

Nakamura said he didn’t emotionally respond while on the bench. In the case of Alison Taylor, who was drunk and under the influence of drugs when she struck and killed 20-year-old college student and bicyclist Brody Winslow in 2012 — a case in which the prosecutor, defense lawyer and Taylor were emotional during Taylor’s sentencing to 10 years for first-degree negligent homicide — Winslow’s mother, Heidi Winslow, thanked the judge for taking “a stand for the consequences of drunk driving.”

In 2011, one of Nakamura’s more novel sentences drew national attention.

Four University of Hawaii at Hilo softball players were accused of shoplifting $674 in merchandise, including computer games and a “Despicable Me” DVD from Walmart. As one of the conditions for a deferred acceptance of the women’s no contest pleas — to erase the Class C felony theft charge from their records — Nakamura ordered them to complete their four-year degrees.

All later had their theft charges dismissed per their deferrals.

Nakamura has also handled some highly publicized civil cases, including at least two linked to the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project.

On May 5, 2014, he denied an agency appeal by six opponents of the project of a Conservation District Land Use permit issued on April 12, 2013, by the Board of Land and Natural Resources to allow the construction of the $1.4 billion telescope atop Maunakea. The appellants claimed their due process rights were violated by the board issuing the permit before holding a contested case hearing to evaluate their petition.

Nakamura ruled the appellants civil rights weren’t violated because a contested case hearing had been conducted and construction was halted.

That decision was overturned on Dec. 2, 2015, by the state Supreme Court, which ruled BLNR shouldn’t have issued the permit until the contested case hearing was held.

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote in the high court’s opinion that BLNR “put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held.”

“I think that when a judge is overturned, in most instances there is an emotional response,” Nakamura reflected. “But I think what a judge has to do is accept the decision and then respond to it appropriately. If it’s a vacate or remand with instructions, follow the instructions and move on from there. Because ultimately, the appellate courts determine what the applicable law is and we have to follow it.”

Another civil case that drew statewide media attention was a lawsuit filed in August 2014 by then-U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the wake of a bitterly contested primary between her and Sen. Brian Schatz for the latter’s seat. The primary elections were held on Aug. 9, two days after much of lower Puna was devastated by Tropical Storm Iselle.

At the end of the night, the race was too close to call, with Schatz leading by 1,635 votes. But about 8,000 voters in two Puna precincts hadn’t voted because their polling places, Keonepoko Elementary School and Hawaiian Paradise Park Community Center, weren’t opened because of damage from the storm. Ultimately, it was decided to hold polling for both precincts Aug. 15 at Keonepoko. Hanabusa sued to stop the make-up vote, but Nakamura ruled against her Aug. 14, saying “the court is not supposed to interfere with an ongoing election process, even if it is unconstitutional.”

He did, however take the opportunity to use the bench as a bully pulpit to note “holding the election tomorrow shows some insensitivity to the plight of people in Puna.”

While known for his stoic demeanor on the bench, Nakamura showed a different side during Drug Court, in which he conversed, bantered, and sometimes laughed with participants of the program, where rehabilitation is the goal, although there are consequences for those who falter.

Asked if Drug Court was a labor of love the judge replied, “Yes, it really was. Because you can make a real difference, I think, in people’s lives by talking with them, encouraging them, guiding them to become clean and sober and responsible adults. I call it ‘normal, ordinary responsible persons, NORPS.’”

“That’s where I was different. That’s where I think it’s important for the judge to be engaged with the participants,” he added. “That’s where the discussions are; that’s where the humor is, because that’s how you communicate better, is with humor, I think. But that’s a different kind of case than regular court. People are surprised, I think, at how I treat Drug Court as compared to regular court.”

Asked about his legacy, Nakamura again mentioned being “an ordinary judge working on everyday cases.” But as Kubota did for him, Nakamura served as a role model for the clerks who spent a year in his courtroom after earning their law degrees. They include: Kimberly Taniyama, a former deputy prosecutor and current per diem judge; current Deputy Prosecutors Kevin Hashizaki, Jeff Malate and Ryan Caday; and Deputy Public Defender Justin Lee.

“What is really important to me in regards to my law clerks is that many have remained in the community and are doing well,” he said. “They’re contributing members of the bar, and that’s one of the things that, frankly, I’m most proud of.”

Kona Circuit Judge Melvin Fujino was named Interim Chief Judge for the 3rd Circuit by Recktenwald.

District and family judges will take over Nakamura’s cases until Gov. David Ige names a successor from a list of candidates submitted by the Judicial Selection Commission. The appointment is subject to Senate approval.

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Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Editor’s Note: The headline has been changed from the print edition to reflect that Nakamura retired, not resigned.

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