A state court judge has agreed to close much of a hearing to determine whether a millionaire heiress considered by many to be Hawaii’s last princess has the capacity to manage her money and business affairs.

Abigail Kawananakoa, who is 93, has said she has a sound mind and is capable of making decisions about her $215 million estate.

But Hawaii law says a conservator still can be put in place to make decisions if the person is found to have a “physical, mental, or health impairment” that makes it impossible to manage her affairs.

Abigail Kawananakoa with Veronica Worth at trial.
Abigail Kawananakoa, left, with her spouse, Veronica Worth, and dog, Girlie Girl, attended a court hearing in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Kawananakoa’s case is of considerable public interest not simply because it involves an heiress considered to be Hawaiian royalty, but also because Kawananakoa has long been a major supporter of Native Hawaiian causes and vowed in 2007 to leave her fortune to benefit Native Hawaiians, and she has set up a foundation to benefit Native Hawaiians. Financial decisions she makes now could therefore have a significant impact on future generations.

In order to impose a conservator over Kawananakoa’s estate, Hawaii Circuit Judge James Ashford will have to decide by “clear and convincing evidence” that Kawananakoa lacks the capacity to manage her affairs. The question at a Wednesday court hearing was how much of that hearing should be held in public.

Kawananakoa’s lawyers argued the hearing should be closed because it would deal with sensitive personal financial and medical information. Making such information public would violate Kawananakoa’s privacy rights, her attorney, Bruce Voss, argued.

But reporters for Civil Beat, Hawaii News Now and the Associated Press all argued that the hearing should be open because the matter was one of great public interest and that the people had a right to know the reasoning behind the judge’s decision.

Ashford’s order, issued Wednesday afternoon, offered a hint of compromise to the media by saying it would be generally open. But he said portions of the hearing dealing with medical and finances would be closed. Ashford also agreed to seal any records containing financial or medical information submitted as evidence.

Patti Epler, Civil Beat’s editor and general manager, said it might be understandable to keep some medical information from public scrutiny but that closing portions of the hearing about finances could undermine public trust in the process especially when it comes to how the estate will be handled.

“My concern is closing the hearing when it comes to financial information because that’s basically the public interest – whether her estate is going to benefit Native Hawaiians or not,” she said.

Kawananakoa is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty and is often called “Princess.” She also is an heir to the James Campbell Estate and a shareholder of the James Campbell Corp., the Kapolei-based commercial real estate enterprise.

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