Editor’s Note: There’s a feeling in Hawaii that people here don’t like to rock the boat, to speak up or publicly raise concerns about important issues and possible wrongdoing. But public debate and discussion are vital if we are going to make Hawaii a better place for residents and businesses. This series spotlights people (and organizations) in Hawaii who aren’t afraid to make waves.
The view isn’t much from Victor Geminiani’s office in downtown Honolulu.
No ocean out the window, just the building across the street. A colleague’s desk is just a few feet away.
Even though he’s a successful lawyer, the humble surroundings seem appropriate considering who he represents.
Geminiani, 69, is the executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, a legal advocacy organization he helped found in 2002. The non-profit with just four employees litigates issues in support of the downtrodden.
Since advocating for justice in the South during the civil rights movement, Geminiani has spent the last 45 years trying to improve the lives of low-income people across six states
During two decades in Hawaii, he brought a successful class-action lawsuit in federal court improving conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace, a 600-unit public housing complex in Kalihi where bed bugs, lack of air conditioning and broken elevators plagued residents.
Geminiani won another lawsuit that required the state to allow children who became homeless to remain in their same school and pay for bus transportation for them.
When former Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration decided to severely cut health benefits for immigrants from Micronesia, he countered with a lawsuit prompting a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling to restore health care services.
To call Geminiani passionate would be an understatement. When he describes his work, he gesticulates widely, his eyes intent and urgent.
While other advocates have burned out over time, Geminiani seems to have gained enthusiasm with the decades.
He’s “a fast-talking salesperson for justice,” said Patrick Gardner, a former colleague of Geminiani’s in Northern California.
Geminiani was born to Irish and Italian immigrants in Long Island in 1944 and graduated from law school in 1969.
After he pulled No. 289 and escaped the draft during the Vietnam War, he decided to join Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), which President Lyndon Johnson founded when he launched the War on Poverty four years earlier.
Geminiani went to Georgia to work at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and began working on cases to shut down jails that violated prisoners’ rights. Many of his cases piggybacked off newly minted Supreme Court rulings regarding equal protection and due process.
He made enemies easily in sleepy Southern towns where many didn’t take kindly to a young Yankee challenging the status quo.
But he quickly realized that the problem was the system, not necessarily the people managing it. One of his closest friends in Georgia was a sheriff who understood how bad conditions were in a jail, but wasn’t able to fix them by himself.
Until he moved to Hawaii, Geminiani never lived anywhere for very long, bouncing between Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, Florida and California.
In Macon County, Georgia, he won a case enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allow African Americans to vote. In Washington, D.C., he advocated for more federal funding for legal aid programs.
In each place he saw a similar pattern: Where there aren’t legal advocates for the poor, “fiefdoms come up almost by human nature.”
“You hit the people who are most powerless because they’re not going to fight back,” he said.
Geminiani fell in love with the Aloha State when he first visited in 1965. He finally moved to Hawaii to become executive director of the Legal Aid Society in 1994.
Two years later its funding was in jeopardy. The state cut about half of the organization’s budget, and Congress passed a law in 1996 restricting funds for the national Legal Services Corporation, including barring it from funding class-action lawsuits. Geminiani led the first case in the nation challenging the restrictions, which forced the LSC to revise its regulations.
“You can’t sue and then expect the government to pay you for it.”
— Victor Geminiani
But Geminiani had learned a lesson about the fickleness of politics. He decided to establish LEJ, then known as Lawyers for Equal Justice, in order to separate impact litigation — class-action lawsuits for public policy change — from other services offered by the Legal Aid Society, which include representing or advising low-income people on issues related to housing, family law, consumer rights and public benefits.
“You can’t sue and then expect the government to pay you for it,” he said.
Geminiani loves Hawaii, but says that for all its beauty, the state mistreats its poor people.
“Hawaii thinks it’s progressive, but it’s not,” he said, rattling off statistics to underscore his point: first in the nation for homelessness, 48th as of 2011 for participation in the federal food stamp program by eligible residents, fourth-highest for taxes on poor people.
Geminiani has unleashed the same aggressiveness in Hawaii to correct social inequities that he showed in other states. He is helping to sue the state for not translating the drivers license test into different languages. Hawaii was one of only five states that didn’t translate the test, despite the fact that nearly 12 percent of the population have limited English proficiency.
Although the case is still being litigated, it’s already proven effective. The Department of Transportation began translating the test into 12 other languages in March, including Ilocano and Marshallese.
Geminiani has also been engaging in more community outreach and lobbying as the Hawaii Appleseed Center has shifted its focus to research and advocacy on issues such as tax reform and minimum wage at the state and city governments.
He’s not getting rich. During 2011, Geminiani’s salary was less than $17,000, forcing him to go on unemployment when money from the state, awarded as the result of court action, was delayed.
Geminiani, who now works just part-time, will turn 70 in July and has been thinking about retirement. But his friends and colleagues can’t imagine him not doing what he does.
“I think if we hadn’t had him, things would be a lot worse for a lot of people,” said Drew Astolfi, director of the Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based nonprofit organization that advocates on such issues immigration, education and minimum wage. Astolfi has only known Geminiani for about four years, but said he is one of FACE’s most important allies.
“I think if we hadn’t had him, things would be a lot worse for a lot of people.” — Drew Astolfi
Astolfi describes Geminiani as “relentless” and said he stands out from other social justice advocates in Hawaii because of his “willingness to scrap.” That’s a common view among Geminiani’s colleagues and others in the social justice community.
“The guy is like the Energizer Bunny, he’s just going and going and going,” said Paul Alston, a director at the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing. Alston has known Geminiani for more than 20 years, and now works alongside Geminiani to litigate cases.
“A lot of people do that kind of work and they do it well,” Alston said. “Very few people do it very well for as long as he has done it.”
While his passionate advocacy has sustained him for a lifetime, his hard-driving personality has some drawbacks.
During an acceptance speech last fall for a national award honoring his public service work, Geminiani acknowledged that his drive can sometimes get in the way of collaboration.
“I know that during my career, I have too often let the convenience of conviction, aggression and passion often make life difficult for those I work with and for that I am apologetic,” he said.
Geminiani said when he first moved to Hawaii, he had more of the “mainland” mentality.
One of his biggest failures came during the 2012 legislative session, when a proposal to set aside an office building for public service organizations fell through. Geminiani helped lead the coalition that had supported funding for the building, but group divisions derailed the plan during the last few days of session.
Geminiani said when he first moved to Hawaii, he had more of the “mainland” mentality of wanting to come and fix things. Now, he said, he’s more willing to listen and collaborate.
Even those who have opposed Geminiani respect him. Susan Chandler, a professor at the University of Hawaii, was director of human services under former Gov. Ben Cayetano, when the state sought to limit disability benefits.
“He used to sue me all the time,” Chandler said. But she agreed with him in principle and respected his intellect. Eventually they became good friends and now collaborate on social justice advocacy.
Astolfi said while some might clash with Geminiani, he’s grateful to have someone on his side who is an “ass-kicker.” “There’s just not a lot of ass-kickers on the poor people’s side in Hawaii. They mostly work for whom I would consider to be the enemy,” Astolfi said. “Victor helps balance the scale for the common person and I think that’s pretty priceless.”