Ben Lowenthal: A Maui Boy Embraces The Spirit Of Change - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender on Maui practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at

Civil Beat’s newest columnist introduces himself and the world that shaped him.

Editor’s note: Ben Lowenthal is a public defender with a background in journalism. That seemed an interesting combination of skills and sensibilities so a column that focuses on legal affairs with a reporter’s eye should be interesting. He grew up on Maui where he wrote a column for The Maui News for 10 years and he still maintains a popular legal blog. We think his sharp insight into the courts, the legal system, and criminal justice in Hawaii and abroad will add a new depth to Civil Beat’s coverage of important issues.

Hawaii lawyers have been agents of change. They have exposed public corruption, corporate malfeasance, and proudly uphold the rule of law. Their representation of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, and some of the most hated people in our community challenge us to consider what kind of society we want to live in. In some cases, they even help bring about long-lasting and durable changes to our society.

Of course, none of this was on my mind at 17. When I graduated from high school under the floodlights of War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku, I was ready to leave Maui with no solid plan of returning. Four years after that, I was in San Francisco getting ready for another move that would take me farther away from Maui.

But something happened at the University of Kansas. I got homesick. It wasn’t just the pleasant weather, the food or my family that I missed. I would join the hordes of vacationers who fly here by the millions during summer breaks. This homesickness was different.

Politically speaking, when I moved to Kansas in 2003, the Sunflower State was about as red as we are blue. It still is. But the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole was giving way to a more radical and socially conservative brand.

Now, Kansas Republicans are more like the state’s Attorney General, Kris Kobach, who gained national attention bullying undocumented immigrants and promoting xenophobia. There, they wage the culture wars we see on television, not on the streets.

My introduction to Kansan conservativism came on my first day of school. Despite the humidity and withering, triple-digit August heat, I was buzzing with the excitement of a new student on a new campus.

Then I saw it.

A big truck slowly passed the stately limestone buildings on the main part of campus. It purposely slowed down we could see the billboards strapped to its sides. It was an anti-abortion group roving through campus with a graphic, bloody picture of a biomass resembling an aborted fetus. Slogans shamed the women who exercised their once-existing constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies.

What kind of place did I move to? It was appalling.

Of course, I learned that not all Kansans and not even all conservatives were like that. The state and the law school had its share of embattled and proud liberals and progressives. But for me, seeing that on the first day left a mark. Kansas made me see I took a lot for granted in Hawaii. That’s what made this homesickness different.

I soothed it with chili and rice and by reading books about home. When winter temperatures dropped below freezing and winds howled through dead trees, I learned about the legacy of Hawaii’s lawyers. I read up on Maui’s Patsy Mink and Nadao Yoshinaga. They too endured rough Midwestern winters as law students in Chicago, went home, and threw themselves into local politics and the legislative process.

Ben Lowenthal’s collection of Hawaii history books kept him grounded while he was at law school in Kansas. (Courtesy: Ben Lowenthal)

I discovered Harriet Bouslog, a courageous criminal defense lawyer and labor activist, who took on tough cases and unpopular causes. When she criticized a trial judge’s handling of one of her cases at a rally in Honokaa on the Big Island, the territorial bar association suspended her license. She fought it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which vindicated her First Amendment right to free speech in 1959.

It seemed like an entire generation in the islands stopped accepting the old way of doing things and started doing something about it. Not everybody shared the same vision of the future — compare the political insider Dan Inouye with the socialist florist Koji Ariyoshi — but everybody seemed committed to changing the status quo. I saw them as pioneers who turned a territory tightly controlled by oligarchs into a modern-day, more egalitarian state.

My home state passed dynamic and bold legislation to force employers to provide health care insurance coverage for most of its workers. When it came to land use, we have more tools to control landowners than most states and municipalities. Our criminal procedure provides more protection for the accused. We legalized abortions before Roe v. Wade and now we’re among the first to keep it that way after Dobbs v. Jackson.

I argued to my conservative friends that a state with powerful land use controls, penchant for organized labor and strong social safety net was the better way forward than a decentralized government providing next to nothing for vulnerable people. Most of the time we’d agreed to disagree.

By then, I was eager to come home and sit for the bar. I skipped my graduation ceremony at Booth stadium, something folks still chide me about to this day.

Another surprise awaited when I started practicing law in 2007. While we may be the anathema to just about anything libertarian, we aren’t a progressive paradise either. I learned that after statehood, we governed by a consensus and have seldom tolerated dissent.

Change is inevitable. And it happens in the unlikeliest of places.

Jack Hall, the ex-sailor and former Communist who spearheaded the labor movement in Hawaii, might have put it best when he declared that “things here are in good, boring shape.” Over the decades a sleepy status quo has enveloped us.

Some folks call this conservatism, but that’s not what I saw running rampant in Kansas. Culture wars don’t get a lot of traction here — at least not yet anyway. I call this strong resistance to any kind of change institutionalism. Take just about any issue in the local news and it can come down to those who defend the way the institution does something against the ones who want the institution to do something else. Changing the institution itself remains elusive.

It’s not just politics. The legal system, state agencies, unions, media outlets or large private employers, all have staunch, non-ideological institutionalists devoted to keeping things as is — even when we agree that something has got to give.

I wonder what Hall would think of what’s happened. The housing crisis, mass incarceration, income inequality, and even some of the culture wars have come to the islands. Is institutionalism going to cut it?

Perhaps the spirit that moved the generation I read about and that inspired me through my Kansas years is still around. After all, change is inevitable. And it happens in the unlikeliest of places.

Last year, the anti-abortion groups in Kansas were confident that their ballot measure amending the state constitution would finally outlaw abortion once and for all in their state. Remarkably, it failed. Voters rejected it.

If that can happen there, anything is possible here.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

Chad Blair: Where The Sun Still Shines At The Hawaii State Capitol

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About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender on Maui practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at

Latest Comments (0)

Glad to see you here at this forum, I even signed up so I could put my two cents into the comments. Respected your column at The Maui News and now happy to see you here. Mahalo.

makaii · 1 month ago

The "Eat Beef" bumpersticker was like sending out the Bat Signal (TM) to progressive CB readers (all two of us?). In this case it was to announce that they finally hired a lefty columnist. So, as I sit here celebrating National Make the First Move Day, I congratulate CB for finally making the first move. You're hiring is one small step for CB and one giant step for my general happiness and well being. You are now the token lefty and the weight of being a first and an ideological minority is weighty position to shoulder. Good luck to you, sir!

Frank_DeGiacomo · 1 month ago

Many might not be aware but Ben is the son of the esteemed Philip Lowenthal who is highly regarded as one of Hawaii's best criminal and civil attorneys. The Lowenthal family is chock full of legal talent with a solid ethical grounding on their home turf in Maui.Almost 30 years ago Philip represented me when MPD made an egregious false arrest and I was quickly acquitted. Philip never charged me a dime and he expressed to me that his reward was helping to expose the blatant corruption at MPD.

HuliOpu · 1 month ago

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