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Hawaii Family Court

Hawaii’s Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit is a place no one wants to go, and a place we couldn’t live without. Writer Jana Wolff gained special access to the court to shed some light on what happens inside.


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With so many cases on his docket, Judge Broderick's courtroom is fast-paced, but his demeanor is calm and patient.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

When Love Turns Livid

A husband headbutts his wife for selling his stuff on eBay; a mother of twins uses beer bottles and the kids’ toys to beat her husband; a grandmother is worried about the safety of her grandson, whose dad has 25 aliases and multiple convictions for drugs and theft; a woman is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend; a young man wants to keep his younger brothers away from the father who abused him; a divorcing wife can’t meet her friends at the dog park because of mutual restraining orders with her husband, who knows that whoever shows up first is the one who gets to stay.

Sometimes, what’s more disturbing for a judge than issuing a long-term or temporary restraining order (TRO) is evaluating cases in which the parties are requesting dissolution of the order. The mom who drove her car to the edge of a cliff and told her 10-year-old daughter, “Today is the day we’re going to die,” now wants visits with her child and no further action on the TRO. The man who molested his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage wants to dissolve the restraining order on the 3-year-old son they had together. And the young woman whose boyfriend broke into her house and once threatened to kill her now wants to reconcile.

It’s the judge’s determination of what’s in “the best interests of the child” that gives family court judges far more discretion than any other type of judge. Without a jury, he or she has to sort out a chaotic situation fairly, tap into precedent and instinct, and come up with a ruling that might displease both parties in the process. “It is difficult not to become hardened,” says Broderick of what he sees every day, “but I always try to be respectful, and I always try to offer hope—even as I hold people accountable.”

Why do they do it?

The wood-paneled courtrooms are small, even claustrophobic. In each stands an American flag and a Hawaiian flag. Some of the judges keep personal photographs on their desks or nearby, as if to remind them that all is not bad with the world. For Judge Bode Uale, it’s a picture of his grandfather taken at Hukilau Beach in Laie. He refers to it in court sometimes with young Samoan offenders: “Don’t use stereotypes as an excuse. Think of your grandfather and make him—make us—proud.”

Ask any of the family court judges why they undertake this soul-sucking work and unrelenting pace, and their answers, like that of Judge Luke, are unequivocal: “You have to love the court to work under these conditions.” Judge Paul Murakami “wouldn’t work anywhere else … anywhere I’d be removed from real people.” Broderick puts it simply: “As long as I’m a judge, I want to be a family court judge.”

After granting a juvenile a second chance, Judge Uale warns, "But I don't want to see you here again."

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

If the desire to make a difference gets well-respected lawyers to don the black robe as family court judges, seeing the changes that people can make is what keeps them there. “Sure, Family Court is a microcosm for the ills in our community,” acknowledges Judge R. Mark Browning, “but it’s also a place where miracles happen.” In his 14 years on the bench, he’s seen families reunify once the parents get clean and sober; he’s seen divorce settlements in which the exes put their kids first; he’s seen siblings serve as guardians to their younger brothers and sisters and has heard their parents ask for forgiveness. And, as head of the Juvenile Drug Court, he’s seen kids graduate high school and pursue lives that once didn’t seem possible.

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