Tales From the Bench: 'Judge Sam King: A Memoir'

In a new memoir, the late Sam King shares stories from his long judicial career.


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King co-authored the “Broken Trust” essay published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997 that helped rattle and reform the management of the powerful Bishop Estate.

Photo: David Croxford

From ruling on murder on the high seas, and reforming property ownership, to protecting the palila bird, the late Judge Samuel P. King presided over landmark decisions in Hawaii courtrooms for more than five decades. Despite his weighty caseload, the longtime federal judge was known for his wisdom, wit and warmth.

A new book, Judge Sam King: A Memoir, presents that history through recollections of the man himself. Veteran newspaper reporters Jerry Burris and Ken Kobayashi co-authored the book based on a series of recorded interviews they did with King in 2009. King died the following year at age 94. Reading through the book offers insights to a fascinating career. Some excerpts:

The murders of Malcolm and Eleanor Graham on the high seas: “Of all the criminal cases I handled as a federal judge, none came close to the publicity generated by the Palmyra murders case. It was a case made for the movies, and, in fact, inspired a two-part mini-series on CBS television in 1991. It was also the subject of a book by well-known California lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, And The Sea Will Tell. I was kind of a bad guy in Bugliosi’s book, but so be it.”

Weather wizard?: “During jury selection at one of the Palmyra trials, I accidentally attracted worldwide news coverage. There had been a lot of bad weather in California at the time of that trial, so people weren’t showing up for jury duty. As a joke, I issued a court order: ‘I hereby order that it cease raining by Tuesday.’ Well, guess what? It stopped raining on Tuesday. In fact, California went on to suffer a long drought.”

Cases: “I’ve had thousands of litigants come before me during my years on the federal bench. The smallest by far was a tiny yellow-and-gray feathered creature not much bigger than the palm of your hand. It was the palila bird, one of Hawaii’s many threatened or nearly extinct species. The biggest ‘defendant,’ in a sense, was the massive H-3, a billion-dollar federal interstate highway that pushes its way through the Koolau Mountains between Honolulu and Oahu’s Windward side. The law and the weight of evidence caused me to rule in favor of both the palila and the highway, keeping their cases alive when the odds might have seemed stacked against them.”

Crime: “I never understood why people would say there was no organized crime in Honolulu. Of course there was! Generally, organized crime centered on gambling. There was a little bit of this, ‘You pay us so much a month or we come in and destroy you’—the protection racket. There was some prostitution and drugs, but gambling was the big one. The thing about organized crime is that it would not be possible without the people who break the law because they want to gamble and hire prostitutes.”

On running against popular Gov. Jack Burns: “Losing the race for governor turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. During the campaign, I made a point of saying that I could work with a legislature controlled by the other party, but the reality was that as a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish much. As I said many times later, ‘I got lucky. I lost.’”

The book sells for $22.95 in hardcover at bookstores and through Watermark Publishing at bookshawaii.net. (Disclosure: Watermark is a sister company within the aio group of companies that owns HONOLULU Magazine.)

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