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Melvin Fujino left is sworn in as a Circuit Court judge by Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald in 2015. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)
Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino will retire from the bench at the end of June. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
After 31 years in government service, 3rd Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino has announced his retirement and is ready to open a new chapter in his life.
Fujino, who has served as interim chief judge as well as presiding judge over Drug Court and Veterans Court, will hang up his robe for the final time on June 30.
Fujino grew up in Kealakekua, attending Konawaena from kindergarten through high school.
He attended college at the University of Washington where he majored in psychology.
“I thought I was going to be a teacher,” he said. “I took a student teaching class. They had fourth- to sixth-graders mixed together. I’d go home at the end of the day and be wiped out. I have so much appreciation for teachers and what they do.”
After realizing teaching was not his calling, he considered getting a PhD in Psychology.
“Back then was Reaganomics and all the social programs were getting cut out,” he recalled, having to rethink his career choice. “I thought who am I to tell people how to live? If I want to help people and I have to live by the law, I should learn the law. Then I can help people.”
He pursued his law degree at Gonzaga University and the summer after his first year was hired as an extern for retired Judge Ronald Ibarra, who at the time was head of the new Kona Prosecutors Office.
The call came for him to return home again after graduation from then Circuit Court Judge Paul De Silva, offering him a clerk position.
“I could live at home, didn’t even have to apply for a job and clerked for him for a little over a year,” said Fujino.
Wanting to travel and experience something new, Fujino applied for and was hired as a flight attendant with Hawaiian Airlines. When he got the job he told De Silva, who had his pilot license.
“He told me ‘you’re young. Go travel. You can always come back to law.’ So I did,” Fujino said.
At that time, Hawaiian Airlines flew several private charter flights. His new job took him to London, Paris, Mexico, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Iceland and Saudi Arabia. After nine months, he transferred back to Honolulu, working interisland routes and nights at a private law firm in Honolulu.
Wanting to return to law, he applied for a leave of absence from the airline and applied for a clerkship with Judge Philip Chun, Administrative judge for Circuit Civil Court in Honolulu. He worked for Chun for a year and decided to go back to the airlines, where he worked a few more years.
When he was done with flying and wanted to come home, he contacted the prosecutor’s office in Kona. He was offered a job and moved back to Kona in 1991, working in the office 15 years.
In 2006, he went to work for the Attorney General in Honolulu. He always kept in contact with Ibarra, who informed him in 2008 of a newly opened position for a family court judge in South Kohala. Ibarra encouraged him to apply for it and former Supreme Court Chief Justice CJ Moon nominated him.
Fujino was selected and sworn in the end of 2008.
When Kona Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Strance resigned in 2015, he applied for the position and was selected for a 10-year term. In December 2019, he was appointed interim chief judge for the 3rd Circuit.
He said he always thought he would finish his term, but re-examined his decision this year, saying “I just can’t see myself doing this for the next four and a half years.”
“I would always leave my jobs — not because I didn’t like it; it was just time to go,” he said. “I just felt like it was time for me to go on and do something else.”
“I owe a lot to Judge Ibarra,” said Fujino. “He helped me out a lot. He has so much wisdom with not only the law but how you do things. He was always such a good chief because he always thought steps ahead, not only on the decision, but how the decision affected the court. He was a visionary and a good planner.”
Ibarra, who was surprised at Fujino’s decision to retire, recalled Fujino’s years as a prosecutor and judge.
“He has been a great judge and prosecutor,” said Ibarra. “He cared a lot for the community and as chief judge cared about the whole island, not just the Kona side. Most people don’t realize he is a very compassionate person.”
Looking back on his years on the bench, Fujino said the specialty courts— Drug Court and Veterans Court — were his favorite.
“As a judge, it changed the way we looked at cases,” he recalled. “As a prosecutor, we thought if they were addicted they didn’t follow the rules we should just send them to prison. It’s because we didn’t know as much then about addiction. Then we got drug court training.”
As a prosecutor he was part of the team, along with Ibarra to bring Drug Court to Kona. He said the approach of drug court is intensive supervision.
“Regular supervision isn’t going to work for this population. With Drug Court you see results,” he said. “My biggest accomplishment is when I see these people succeed. You see them out in public and they are doing well and you are happy for them. They are good people. We are just the catalyst for them to get them there.”
Ibarra said he was happy Fujino was his successor, keeping the specialty courts going forward.
“He made a big difference,” Ibarra said. “He’s been a great friend too. Bottom line is he’s true to himself.”
On Friday, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald designated Circuit Court Judge Robert D.S. Kim as Chief Judge, Administrative Judge and Senior Family Court Judge of the 3rd Circuit effective July 1, positions Fujino held in an interim capacity since December 2019.
In addition, Fujino has assigned Family Court Judge Wendy DeWeese to preside over circuit court proceedings until a permanent judge is selected.
Kim said that Fujino has been a strong and compassionate leader as interim chief judge.
“He worked tirelessly as the Big Island Drug Court Judge for West Hawaii to save lives from addiction,” said Kim. “As the Veterans Court judge he helped those who served our nation. He cared about people in our community.”
Kim said Fujino was the first judge to work each morning and the last to leave.
“We will sincerely miss his presence on the bench,” said Kim.
Fujino said he doesn’t have a plan for what the future holds for him.
“When I look back on my life, I’ve always found things to do,” he said. “In life, you have to balance out your quality of life which includes working, but also relaxing and doing things you enjoy. I’m excited about this new phase.”
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