The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Mike Wilson - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Judges and justices must retire at 70, but Wilson is as engaged as ever with environmental issues and criminal justice reform.

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke on Tuesday with Mike Wilson, who retired from the Hawaii Supreme Court in early April after serving 10 years on the state’s highest court. He previously served as a judge of the First Circuit Court where he presided over adult drug court, adult mental health court and the felony criminal trial court. We began by asking Wilson whether the state had made progress since he led a 2018 task force that criticized the “punitive mentality” of Hawaii’s criminal justice system. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There is an emergency now. I think it’s one of two serious emergencies that we’re facing in Hawaii from a public policy point of view. But the emergency has to do with the conditions that prevail at the moment. This emergency has sort of a perfect storm that’s associated with it that’s pretty exciting in terms of the possibility of moving forward now in a way that’s more transformational.

Specifically, from the point of view of the participants in the issue, we’ve got a group of advocates that is experienced and committed and I think heartfelt. This is a group that understands the suffering that’s being perpetrated every single day that’s really pretty much unacceptable in terms of the way we treat people that are being held, especially people that haven’t been convicted of a crime.

We’ve got the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, a result of that criminal justice task force.

Cristin Johnson is terrific. We’re lucky to have her. She’s a very powerful woman who understands the correctional justice history in the United States and has been part of it because of her work in Manhattan with Rikers Island, for example. She has been wonderful. And she’s gone into each of the institutions and she has in many ways allowed for the implementation of the recommendations that were made by that task force that were really significant having to do with this change from punitive to rehabilitated.

Former Hawaii Associate Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson met with the Civil Beat Editorial Board in Tuesday. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Also, we have a chief justice (Mark Recktenwald) who’s been around a long time, and he is, I would say, very much like kind of a servant leader. You can get to have a lot of hubris if you’re in charge of an entire branch of government for, I don’t know, a couple of decades practically. But he’s a good guy. And I think that he’s interested in reform.

And then this is an interesting governor (Josh Green). I’m not sure exactly how he’s going to approach this issue, but I do know that he’s met with this other person who is in that category of being kind of extraordinary — Pablo Stuart. He’s a published psychiatrist, embedded in the criminal justice system, but he teaches at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.

But most importantly, he is a psychiatrist with the Department of Public Safety. He has been a prison manager, for example, in a case that is the most important prison case in the history of the United States that the United States Supreme Court decided called Brown v. Plata (2011). And they cite Pablo Stewart and we have him. So, Pablo, working with the governor is an exciting thing.

Hawaii State Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson questions lawyers during oral arguments. Mauna Kea. 27 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Wilson questioning lawyers during oral arguments over a case involving Mauna Kea. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

It seems like really all that came out of the task force was this new commission. And it also seems like the Legislature didn’t really give it much money. And so these really ambitious things that you guys came up with, so many good ideas in the report have just never gotten any air. Do you feel disappointed?

You make a really good point. I did kind of define this as an emergency. We still have a really big problem. There’s another part of this dream team that addresses the point you’re making about possible disappointment. The fact that not enough has been accomplished yet.

A lot of this comes down to training for the correctional officers and their attitude in the fact that the the kind of survival atmosphere occur OCCC (Oahu Community Correctional Center ) isn’t just felt by the inmates, but also by the correctional officers. And that really has to be improved.

So, yes, the conditions haven’t improved as they should for the correctional officers. The conditions haven’t improved as they should for the inmates.

The federal District Court determined that there was deliberate indifference not too long ago on the part of the administration. So they are in potential danger of the intervention of a court unless something is done.

We have a cycle that is eroding the Hawaiian culture through the correctional justice systems treatment of young Hawaiians.

If you look at the people in the Legislature, you’ve got (Senate Judiciary Chair) Karl Rhoads, you’ve got (Ways and Means Chair) Donovan Dela Cruz — he’s a strong personality, but I know that he has a compassion for the part of the community that’s most severely affected by the correctional emergency, and that is young Hawaiians. That is a demographic that is really being shredded. I mean, we have a cycle that is eroding the Hawaiian culture through the correctional justice system’s treatment of young Hawaiians.

So you have potentially a judicial intervention. But you also have the possibility of leadership from somebody like Donovan Dela Cruz. Or (Senate Vice President) Michelle Kidani. Whether we’re talking about Kalihi-Palama or you’re talking about Mayor Wright housing, this in a way is sort of her community.

So if you’ve got somebody that’s active in the Legislature — Donovan Dela Cruz and Michelle Kidani combined with Karl Rhoads who is very focused on this, too — because within the next couple of legislative sessions, something’s going to have to be done. Are we going to re-create the wheel or are we going to go with the traditional administration, the administration that’s brought us to the brink that we’re at now, or are we going to allow this kind of dream team to participate and work with the governor to put together a best practices kind of correctional system that is rehabilitative?

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is still overcapacity and marred by deteriorating conditions. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

So you had mentioned you were going to do everything you could do, make sure money gets spent appropriately. What are you doing specifically? Do you have any plans yet?

Yes, I am spending a lot of time with the the oversight commission’s kind of support group that includes that group that I mentioned in contact with the governor. And so what we’re trying to do is move forward the idea of an institution that is alternative. And then I do spend a lot of time as well on Adult Friends for Youth.

Tell us a little bit about that.

Adult Friends for Youth — the more you learn about it, the more you want to find out about it, because it’s a bunch of heroes. It’s really fascinating. It was started by a guy named Sid Rosen, and what it is is it’s a strike force, a SWAT team. It’s a special forces group of young people, primarily women, that go into the schools and handle the kids that are so problematic that the public school system can’t handle it. And they also are right there on the front line of gangs.

This is from a Bloomberg clip from last month. I’m just going to read from it: “Hawaii’s top court issued a ruling this week recognizing a human right to a stable climate, a decision that could reverberate in other rights based climate cases in the U.S. and beyond. Essentially, the citizens have an affirmative right to a life sustaining climate system, the first of a kind litigation.” I believe this is the Hu Honua, PUC, Hawaiian Electric decision, which some in the Legislature still haven’t seemed to pick up just yet. But that’s quite profound as Bloomberg is describing it. Tell us about that.

Well, it’s profound, but isn’t it straightforward? It’s profound, which is part of the fascinating thing about it. This is intergenerational injustice. It’s never been seen in the history of the human race — what’s about to happen to people that are 40 years old and younger.

And it is almost inconceivable. You have to study what’s coming. But getting back to this concept of you have a right to life under the Constitution that’s straightforward, and does a right to life mean that you have the right to not have somebody take your life gratuitously? I think so. I mean, that’s what the criminal justice system is about.

But if you think about the logic of this fundamental human right to a life-sustaining climate, back up for a second. Think about fundamental human rights that have come before our courts before, and the extent to which the Constitution necessarily is a document that would cover that right.

Slavery. So during the agricultural era, when the agriculture industry depended on slavery, the men on the Supreme Court had to consider whether slavery was constitutional. And it was found constitutional to buy and sell human beings. Now, in this thinking, we’re under the same Constitution, it’s just inconceivable that we would have slavery in the United States and buy and sell people.

How about women? When the issue came before the Supreme Court, it was clear women are defective. They don’t have the capacity. They’re emotionally not able to handle really intense decision making. And in addition to that, their way of life is such that, you know, it’s interrupted by childbearing. I mean, for heaven’s sakes, do you really think we’re going to treat them equally?

Now, we’re past that to the point where it seems like maybe it never happened. The constituency of Black people is important, but it’s limited. The constituency of women is important, but it’s limited. It’s only half the population. The people that are about to experience something that will be — it’s described not by me, it’s just described by the literature now over and over again — as a survival issue.

Environmental preservation such as protecting Kawainui Marsh has always been a passion for Mike Wilson. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014)

You know, as I said in this decision, the secretary general of the United Nations at the last COP (Conference of the Parties), where theoretically there’s supposed to be a solution proposed, said we are on the highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator. H-e-l-l. That’s strong language for somebody in the the ambassadorial profession.

Is that the climate conference in Egypt or Norway?

Egypt. In Norway, there were some strong statements too, and he’s made some other great speeches. But the reality is — and we have a bit of a dream team in Hawaii too that comes with respect to climate change — that could allow us to participate internationally at this issue.

But to just put in perspective the human right that we’re talking about, how could you contend that this demographic group that we’re talking about really with respect to a right to a life-sustaining climate isn’t entitled to it?

Am I hearing that the courts, just as they did in the previous centuries with women, with Blacks and a number of issues, are going to be taking the leading role and really getting the planet to wake up and solve this climate crisis?

For that group. This is all the young people. They shouldn’t be held accountable. They didn’t cause it. And it is a group that I think we can say by consensus, regardless of your age, your religion, your nationality, we all care about young people.

How broadly does this affect and what are the implications as you see it as far as development in Hawaii, whether that be transportation or otherwise?

Why would you have a lawsuit that’s going to inhibit the professionals at the Department of Transportation? And really, how much difference does it make if you’ve got this group of eccentric young people that are saying that from their point of view things aren’t being done properly to be able to get sufficient carbon emissions out of the air. And also, even if this case is because Judge Crabtree has allowed it to go forward.

So even if this case is successful, what difference is it really going to make in the overall scheme of things, except maybe to be a thorn in the side of a Legislature that’s well-meaning and doesn’t want to have the courts coming in and telling them what to do?

So a way to respond to that and try to put it in perspective is you could argue that that case — the Navahine case — is the most important climate case in the United States. And I know every single climate case that’s been brought in the United States and there are some really amazingly important cases. You could argue that’s the most important.

Why? Because, for one thing, it’s pretty straightforward if you recognize that climate is an emergency. And any time this is discussed in Hawaii in a way that I think is going to be meaningful and relevant, it’s important to understand that we stand out because we have had an actual formal declaration that we are in an emergency. Our Legislature has been great in the sense of being honest and saying we are in an emergency.

You could argue that the Navahine case is the most important climate case in the United States.

Now, you hear emergency here and hear emergency there. This is an existential threat so that you will have problems with food security and you have problems with energy security all around the world. And I just mentioned the degree of intensity with which the ambassadorial groups around the world that are working hard on behalf of the public, that are coming up against private industry, but they are making it clear with very extreme language that this is the most severe threat to humanity that we’ve seen and that all the other human rights depend upon it.

So getting back to this case: If what is being asked for is a plan that addresses the climate emergency, a transportation plan, and we don’t feel that it’s important enough to do that. Or we don’t feel that, in other words, these children should be allowed to come and make a claim like that. Then we’re misperceiving the role of government, the role of courts and the role of humanity.

You know, they’re not engaging in a high school civics exercise. Your children don’t deserve to go to court to ask for their survival from the agency that’s providing policy on behalf of us. And is this an area that’s significant with respect to global warming? No matter who you are, even if you’re a climate denier, you have to admit that this is an area in which there’s been absolute focus in terms of what are we going to do with our transportation systems? Are we going to electrify the cars? Are we going to change the way in which we fly airplanes?

I mean, it’s just such a straightforward test of the fabric of our political makeup. If we can or cannot allow the children to say to the Department of Transportation — don’t forget, they’re not saying, “Stop the car, stop the airplane, stop anything.” All they want is to have a plan.

Hawaii State Supreme Court Building. Aliiolani Hale.
Hawaii State Supreme Court Building, Aliiolani Hale. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

You better be careful. They’re going to appoint you to another task force here. I’ve just got to bring up your background. We were talking about your activism, Save Sandy Beach, the fact that you ran state agencies, the Land Board, the DLNR and were on the State Water Commission and Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission. You also ran for mayor. So there’s that political element and you’ve also been in private practice. Would you agree that that’s sort of unusual for a Supreme Court justice?

Yeah, I would. I would say that it is. You know, we all carry with us this sense of who we are that’s colored by the experiences we’ve had. I would say that at this point for me my life is sort of a miracle of good fortune. I mean, we could all make the point that we live in a miracle, because look where we were born and look where we live. And, we happen to be able to enjoy ourselves, even intellectually.

But my good fortune has meant that I’ve been able to maybe overcome certain things that otherwise might be an obstacle in my background, like my education. I’ve also been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time in the ocean. I have seen things that are amazing and I have really had a great time being in Hawaii and being in the ocean.

I also spent a lot of time in Kawainui Marsh, which we had to fight to protect for decades. This is a magnificent place. You know, it’s this sort of mystical, kind of large area in Kailua. And then I got to go to a law school that was different because it was the only social justice law school in the United States. Antioch. There isn’t one now. It was supported by the Legal Services Corporation of the United States.

Congratulations on hitting 70. Is 70 too young for someone to retire from the bench in Hawaii? As you know, it’s mandated. There have been proposals to push it to 80. But how do you feel about that mandatory retirement age?

Well, I’m very excited about continuing to be a justice. But I also have great respect for the idea that this is an interesting era. We need to be able to have people that understand what’s about to happen to the younger generation. Might help if you had people that were younger judges, too. So I have mixed emotions about it. But as I said, I’m very grateful.

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Latest Comments (0)

Having understood the injustice of US Supreme Court decisions to legally undergird the institution of slavery and the legal treatment of women as chattel that there wasn't three votes on the Hawai`i Supreme Court to overturn State v. LeVasseur (613 P.2d 1328 (1980) ) and State v. Wenner (98 Haw. 279 (2002) ) and find that animals are not property.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 7 months ago

While I recognize His Honor's experience, and appreciate his insights, many believe our criminal justice system is not punitive enough.We routinely see violent, "career", life-long felons roaming our communities, reoffending, and not being held sufficiently accountable. The tired, worn "poor, young, male Hawaiians" being "disproportionately represented" in our jails and prisons is a testament to a culture that has yet to grasp a 21st century Hawaii.Stop over-indulging criminals, build new, efficient, and cost effective incarceration facilities, including privately operated, and get us out living in fear in this 3rd world banana republic.

Shoeter · 7 months ago

Just think of what it cost to incarcerate someone. Probably more than we pay a teacher.

Richard_Bidleman · 7 months ago

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