Hawaii Loses Shining Star, Judge Sam King, at 94

Sam King courtesy of PBS Hawaii and Leslie Wilcox
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Sam King courtesy of PBS Hawaii and Leslie Wilcox

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Senior U.S. District Judge Samuel Pailthorpe King, 94, was one of Hawaii’s brightest stars. He was everything a judge should be: Fearless, courageous, witty, clear thinking, wise, judicial, dignified and brilliant.


In addition to his lifetime service in the judiciary, he used his prominence in the community to help expose corruption at the highest levels of Hawaii’s government and political circles and within the powerful Bishop Estate. Sam King used his talents to make Hawaii a better place in which to live, and the state is improved because of him.

Sam King’s family reports that Tuesday, after a fall that caused him to be hospitalized, he moved on from this life into the next.

The story of his life, and that of his family’s, is an integral part of Hawaiian history.

But his story does not start in Hawaii. Sam King entered this world in 1916 in Hankow, China. His father, Samuel Wilder King, then a commander of a gunboat on the Yangtze River, was one of the first Hawaiians appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy. After his father retired, the family returned in 1922 to live in Halekou, Hawaii.

“Our home was at Halekou where we shared the hill with the families of Uncle Dan, Uncle Bob, Aunt Helen, and the Kamakas, the noted ukulele makers. Across Halekou Road was the De Costa family with horses and cattle and a dairy operation,” Sam King writes about his life in Hawaii Reporter. “We children often went horseback riding with their children. The surrounding land toward the mountain was relatively unoccupied so that we could hike over a large area without meeting anyone.”

When he moved back to Hawaii, Sam King estimates the population was about 250,000, including 125,000 on Oahu. That compares with about 1.3 million people today.

At that time, he says Hawaii was divided: “Neighbor islands versus Oahu, Big Five versus any competitor, racial groups one against another, with the major ones being Hawaiian (keiki o ka aina and part Hawaiian), haole, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and military.”

As a child, Sam King and his family were in the “Hawaiian group.”  He recounts some of their happy – and challenging – times. “My mother’s brothers all played the ukulele and the guitar and we often had family gatherings where everybody joined in singing and dancing the hula. (All except my mother, that is. She had attended the Priory School run by Episcopal nuns who did not permit the girls even to watch the hula.) Outside of family, it seemed that everybody in the Hawaiian group knew one another.”

“Like many seafaring men, my father was interested in agriculture and domestic animals. We had a banana patch, macadamia nut trees, mountain apple trees, peanut plants, and we bred chickens, ducks, and turkeys.”

Basic utilities were much more labor intensive than they are today. “Our water had to be pumped up from a stream at the bottom of Halekou hill. We had to provide our own telephone and electricity poles and lines. Sewage was by our own cesspool. Telephoning was very primitive with everyone on the same line. We grew up without radios, television, cell phones, refrigerators, garbage collection, talking movies. Much of what we take for granted today was just beginning to be available. Telephone calls to and from the mainland were major and expensive operations.”

Nature, education and history were important to the King family: “We had an uninterrupted view of the Nuuanu Pali over which Kamehameha’s forces had driven the Oahu forces, including one of my father’s Hawaiian ancestors. We children tried to find artifacts of the battle at the foot of the cliff, but the area had been well picked over before us.”

Both he and his sister Charlotte attended Central Grammar School. “Our schedule did not jibe with our father’s work schedule, and we used to wait across the street to be picked up later for the ride home.” He spent some afternoons attending a Japanese language school at the Hongwaji Mission Academy. “I learned katakana and some vocabulary, both of which stood me in good stead when I applied in 1943 to enter the Navy’s Japanese Language School at Boulder, Colorado.”

After graduating from Central, King and his sister entered Punahou School where he says he was motivated to take advantage of all opportunities offered. His graduating class consisted of 75 boys and girls. “Punahou is indeed an amazing institution. By the time I entered Yale’s freshman class in 1933, I had already been exposed to most of what Yale offered its freshmen,” Sam King says.

He entered a National Oratorical Contest, where he spoke about statehood. That won him and four other American finalists a trip to Europe, and literally gave him his ticket to Yale. “The trip to the East coast took five days by sea and three by train,” Sam King says.

After college, Sam King went to Yale Law School, graduating in 1940. In 1941, he entered private practice. He was in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed. His father called him from Washington DC to find out whether the attack was real.

During the war from 1942 to 1946, he worked for the Navy as a Japanese language officer.  He remained in the U.S. Naval Reserve until 1967, while also returning to private practice, this time in Honolulu.

His career as a judge was extensive. In 1956, he became a district magistrate for the City & County of Honolulu, and in 1961, he was appointed as a judge in the First Circuit Court. He and Judge Gerald R. Corbett were the drafters and founders of the separate “Family Court” system in Hawaii. In 1966, Sam King served in the Family Court he helped establish. He returned to private practice in 1970. In On May 22, 1972, Sam King was nominated by Richard M. Nixon to the United States District, District of Hawaii, and confirmed by the United States Senate on June 28, 1972. He served as chief judge from 1974 to 1984, moving into senior status on November 30, 1984.

Like his father, he got involved in politics. He was chair of the Republican Party and ran for governor against Gov. John A. Burns in 1970.

Meanwhile, a decade earlier, political unrest also inspired his father to get into politics. In 1930, Sam King reports that the “peace and quiet” of Honolulu was disturbed by the “tragedies” and lawsuits of the Massie case.

“The military, especially the Navy beginning with the commanding Admiral, behaved badly. Their attempt to impose military rule over Hawaii (similar to what they already had in Samoa) projected my father, among others, into national politics and the fight for statehood.”

Sam King’s father, Samuel Wilder King, rose to power to become Hawaii’s highest ranking native Hawaiian. He was appointed in 1953 as Hawaii’s 11th Territorial Governor of Hawaii, serving until 1957. Previously, Samuel Wilder King, a Republican, was a Territory of Hawaii delegate in the United States House of Representatives. He also served on the Hawaii Statehood Commission, but died on March 24, 1959, just before Hawaii became a state.

Sam King continued the family’s legacy. In addition to an extensive sterling career as a judge, he co-authored two important pieces, which changed the course of Hawaii’s history.

He, along with four prominent Hawaiians, took on the corruption that was rampant in Hawaii’s largest so called “charitable trust”, the billion dollar Kamehameha Schools, Bishop Estate, as well as its trustees, and their political and judicial lackeys. Their essay, entitled “Broken Trust”, was published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on August 9, 1997, after The Honolulu Advertiser refused it.

The second piece King co-authored with University of Hawaii law school professor Randall Roth, one of the original essay signators, was a more extensive book version entitled “Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement, and Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust.” The book was published through the University of Hawaii Press in March 2006.  (See https://www.brokentrustbook.com)

The essay and book took Hawaii’s power structure by storm and rocked the non-profit world both locally and nationally.

National media paid attention, including the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes.

Some of the books reviews garnered these comments: “Broken Trust–the true story of a multi-billion dollar charitable trust established by a Hawaiian princess and looted by its trustees–[has] all the ingredients of a promising morality tale.  For years, terrible wrongs were done: trustees, lawyers and even justices of the Hawaiian Supreme Court openly committed unethical, underhanded and often illegal acts,” says Alexander A. Bove of Trusts & Estates.

The Westside Chronicle, in Santa Monica, California, writes of the book: “One of the best follow-the-money thrillers is not found on the fiction shelves, but rather in the nonfiction section. This true story of the modern plundering of Hawaii’s Bishop Estate Charitable Trust, described as “world record for breaches of trust,” has elements most novelists couldn’t devise. Just when you think the only thing missing from this account of avarice, arrogance, corruption and deception is sex, we get lewd acts in a public rest room…. Broken Trust ends with such irony even King and Roth can hardly believe it. If the measure of tragedy is how far the mighty can fall, then this story is enormous.”

Ronald D. Aucutt, Real Property, Probate and Trust Journal, writes: “As a mere story, even if it were fiction, the book would be fascinating reading. Beginning with a sensitive portrait of the cultural and political setting for the Princess’s life and the formation of her values and vision, the book combines the lure of the Islands with the intrigue of a whodunit to draw the reader inescapably into the drama. Like readers of any good novel, we join the plot vicariously, we picture the action, we pick heroes and cheer, and we identify villains. We turn page after page.”

Sam King and Randall Roth haven’t been satisfied that changes so desperately needed to rid Hawaii of corruption at its highest levels were in fact made within Hawaii’s judiciary, legislature, and Bishop Estate. In fact, the pair, who came on Hawaii Reporter’s television show, starred on a Smart Business Hawaii Broken Trust panel and were featured in numerous media reports, were quite vocal about the fact that much hadn’t changed.

King, Roth and the others who include Judge Walter Heen, and the now deceased Gladys Brandt and Monsignor Charles Kekumano, can take credit for courageously shining the light on both terrible wrongs being done to Hawaiian children by those entrusted with educating and protecting them, and to Hawaii citizens by some of Hawaii’s most well known elected officials and judges.

Courageous men like Samuel King are rare – even rarer in Hawaii’s small island community where most are afraid to offend or be retaliated against. And those in Hawaii who care about the state’s future must realize the magnitude of this loss.

The last time I saw Sam King, it was his 94th birthday, April 13, 2010, at the Halekulani Hotel, where a group of his peers presented him with a birthday cake at judiciary conference.  The number of candles he was attempting to blow out paled in comparison to his accomplishments in his lifetime.

While many prominent people will likely be making some well-deserved compliments about him in the coming days, the best way to honor Judge Sam King is to read his book, remember his message and teachings, and when its time to stand up for something important – do so – with dignity and honor.





  1. Statements submitted by Hawaii leaders re: Sam King:

    Congressman Charles K. Djou (HI-01) issued the following statement after learning of U.S. District Court Judge Sam King’s passing:

    “I am sorry to learn of Judge King’s passing. He was a leader in Hawaii law, politics and a family friend. Hawaii will miss his presence on the bench and his voice in our community.”

    Congressman Djou’s wife, Stacey, served as Judge King’s law clerk from 1997-1998.


    Governor Neil Abercrombie released the following statement today on the passing of Judge Samuel P. King:

    “Judge King was the heart and soul of Hawaii. He was a friend and a mentor to all who loved Hawaii. Judge King’s rollicking sense of humor – his deep capacity not to take himself seriously while taking Hawaii seriously – set a standard that few, if any, could match. His idea of what was good for Hawaii was an extension of his deep understanding of pono, of doing what’s right.”

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