Judge James S. Burns passes away at 79, was beloved member of UH Law School ohana

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Beverly Creamer, (808) 389-5736
Media Consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Mar 9, 2017

Retired Judge James Burns, right, with Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald at a Law School event.
Retired Judge James Burns, right, with Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald at a Law School event.

Retired Judge James S. Burns, who played a key role in developing contemporary family law and many other areas of law in Hawai‘i as the longtime Chief Judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals, passed away peacefully this morning at the Queen’s Medical Center. He was 79 and had an ongoing battle with throat cancer.

Lanky, lean and the spitting image of his father, the late Governor John A. Burns, Judge Burns was a beloved member of the William S. Richardson School of Law ‘ohana as a mentor for students and as the “gardener” for a lush courtyard's ti garden that became a place of reflection and inspiration for students in the midst of the UH Law School.

“He became known as ‘The Father of Modern Hawai‘i Family Law’ because of the many family law decisions he penned,” said Associate Professor Calvin Pang, a friend and longtime colleague. “The Hawai‘i Chapter of the American Inns of Court, a group that brings top attorneys and judges into the company of law students, renamed itself the ‘James S. Burns Aloha Chapter, American Inns of Court IV’ because of Judge Burns’s many contributions."

It was Dean Avi Soifer who first invited Judge Burns to become a member of the Law School ‘ohana more than a decade ago, both to anchor it firmly to Hawai‘i’s past, and to honor and benefit from the presence of Judge Burns, one of the state’s living legends. Through his many talk story times with law students, his practical advice to all, and his humorous comments, Judge Burns built an enduring legacy at Richardson Law School.

“I love to see plants grow,” Judge Burns said one afternoon a few years ago, as he poked around the edges of his forest of colorful ti plants at the Diamond Head end of the courtyard to make sure no pests had taken up residence. “I have a hard time being where there aren’t plants.  When I saw that the courtyard planter was barren, and the other part was infested with weeds and unsightly ground cover, I decided to change it.”

When his mother, Hawai‘i’s gracious former First Lady Beatrice Burns was alive, Judge Burns grew roses just for her, a challenge in Hawai‘i’s heat. Although she passed away almost 30 years ago, he would still make sure her roses were strong and healthy, and would regularly present them to Law School personnel.

Many Sundays, when the campus is quiet, he was at the Law School, puttering undisturbed or climbing into plant beds to weed, spray and prune, shaping a place of respite to which students gravitate for its shady recesses and welcoming foliage.

His prized plants were the ti that tower high above the planters. These were the stalks of the large green leaf ti cuttings used during the memorial for the late Chief Judge William S. Richardson – “CJ,” as he is still fondly known, and the namesake for the state’s only Law School. The plants sprouted and grew, and now some are more than 8 feet tall.

“It is wonderful to have Judge Burns with us on a regular basis,” Dean Soifer had said. “He is remarkably unassuming, yet we all benefit from his deep knowledge of Hawai‘i and of our law and his common sense — and everybody appreciates his dry sense of humor.”

Six years ago Burns went through two difficult years, first in fighting stage 4 throat cancer and then in helping his wife, TV journalist and documentary filmmaker Emme Tomimbang, through recuperation and recovery after her ruptured brain aneurysm. But even those challenges didn’t dampen his characteristic wry wit. “The Burns-Tomimbang Nursing Home is full,” he told a colleague a few years ago. “Its maximum occupancy is two.”

Like his father, Judge Burns had a habit of downplaying personal praise with a brisk hand wave. He similarly preferred to stay in the background, despite his illustrious career, but his wonderful stories inspired countless law students.

While the honors have been many, with typical humility Burns felt it was his honor to work with the plants that helped turn the Law School’s spacious open-air courtyard into a place that still brings students together to study, talk story or simply enjoy the surroundings of a truly special place.

For more information, visit: https://www.law.hawaii.edu/