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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 24, 2002

Experiences in, on court benefit Aiona

First of two profiles of the candidates for lieutenant governor. Tomorrow, Matt Matsunaga.

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

James "Duke" Aiona sat before the Senate judiciary committee in 1993, hoping to be moved up from Family Court to Circuit Court, when he was asked about the temper of his earlier days.

About five years before, Aiona had been kicked out of a lawyers' league for fighting on the basketball court. And the question before Aiona was whether he had the temperament to be a jurist.

"One court is competition," Aiona remembered answering. "And one court is to apply the law. I've been a judge for three years and I've handled myself in the courtroom."

"Lieutenant governor. That's a little different that the House or City Council. I would have a direct relation with the departments that affect the courts. That intrigued me, " said James "Duke" Aiona.
Others testified in support of Aiona and he won unanimous confirmation. During the next five years he presided over a few of Hawai'i's most notorious and provocative criminal cases, then retired unexpectedly at age 43.

Along the way, Aiona developed a reputation as a tough, fair-minded judge whose impatience occasionally flared at both defendants and lawyers.

These days, Aiona's image is of the soft-spoken, plain-talking running mate to gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle, who is trying to be Hawai'i's first Republican governor in 40 years.

Aiona, the former starting quarterback for St. Louis School's football team and a guard on the basketball team, is well-known in Hawai'i sports and legal circles. While his running mate is focusing on the big-picture issues such as the economy and restoring confidence in public education, Aiona is clearly most comfortable discussing the subjects he knows best: crime, courts and, especially, the scourge of drugs in the community.

Aiona's spot on the Republican ticket clearly complements Lingle — a twice-divorced, Jewish woman who came to the Islands in her 20s. He's a Pearl City-born, popular school athlete with Hawaiian, Chinese and Portuguese roots, a 20-year marriage and four children.

"Duke's a fresh face, a nice-looking face," said Chad Blair, a political science instructor at Hawai'i Pacific University and the author of "Money, Color and Sex in Hawai'i Politics." "But he's an unknown politically."

He does have at least one notable political distinction. Lingle and the Democratic ticket of Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono and state Sen. Matt Matsunaga all support abortion rights. Aiona said he believes that "abortion as a moral matter is wrong."

Aiona sat recently in an all-purpose room in his second-story, utilitarian campaign headquarters — on Kap'iolani Boulevard between a Korean restaurant and a vacant storefront — and said he has little interest in the sport of politics.

A stack of color photos of Aiona and Lingle sat in a box in front of him. Taped behind him on a wall were maps of each island, punctuated with color-coded stickers. Asked what the colors represented, Aiona barely glanced back and waved his hand dismissively.

"Other people worry about that," he said. "I'm not a politician. I am not someone who's going to sit down and analyze numbers."

Prominent family name

Aiona comes from a large and well-known Hawai'i family. His cousin, Sam Aiona, represented Makiki and Tantalus in the House as a Republican. James Aiona Sr. supported Richard Nixon and, like his son, was a school sports legend — in basketball, football and baseball at St. Mary's grade school and at Hilo High on the Big Island.

Aiona was born on June 8, 1955, and went to school at St. Louis and the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. He returned to Honolulu for law school at the University of Hawai'i. While in law school in 1977, he met Vivian Welsh at a dance and married her in 1982. Their children range from 9 to 18 years old.

He began clerking for Circuit Court Judge Wendell K. Huddy in 1981 and got a job as a deputy prosecuting attorney under Chuck Marsland, who remembered Aiona as aggressive and well liked in the office.

"When he had a job to do, he did it," Marsland said.

Aiona went over to the city corporation counsel's office in 1985 and in 1990 was appointed to Family Court. He upset some defense attorneys for the harsh way he sometimes spoke to juvenile defendants.

"I've been known to be boisterous with some of these juveniles," Aiona said. But he made no apologies.

"Our young people want someone to discipline them and tell them what's right and what's wrong," he said. "They really search for that and they really appreciate that."

Tough cases ahead

James "Duke" Aiona, in front of his campaign office at McCully Shopping Center, says he's not going to be someone who "analyzes numbers."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

At his Senate confirmation hearing to the Circuit Court, Matsunaga, then the Senate Judiciary co-chairman, asked Aiona about his temper. Specifically, Matsunaga remembered playing in a lawyers' league game at Kilauea Gym in the late 1980s when Aiona got kicked out.

Aiona and another lawyer named Dexter Kaiama were both diving for a loose ball when both players ended up scuffling on the gym floor, with Aiona tearing at Kaiama's jersey and scratching at his body.

"That was a long time ago and you're talking about young men still full of their stuff trying to prove a point," Kaiama said. "I thought he was diving for my knees, not so much for the ball."

Kaiama knew about Aiona's reputation in the lawyers' basketball and football leagues as a fierce competitor and thought it was best to stay on top of Aiona.

"I was trying to prevent punches from being thrown," Kaiama said. "Once punches were thrown, I would have thrown punches, too."

Matsunaga, who is running against Aiona as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said he was satisfied with Aiona's answer before the judiciary committee. Matsunaga voted along with the other committee members to confirm Aiona.

After his appointment to Circuit Court in 1993, Aiona soon drew the Margaret O'Brownee case. O'Brownee's mother was suffering from Alzheimer's disease when O'Brownee smothered her with a pillow.

O'Brownee faced 20 years in prison. But Aiona ordered her to pay a $1,000 fine and sentenced her to 500 hours of community service, to be worked off by speaking of the dangers of caring for Alzheimer's patients without tapping into community resources.

Aiona's sentence surprised some lawyers who were accustomed to his tough, no-nonsense approach

"That really stunned me," said one attorney who has known Aiona through many stages of his legal career and did not want to be identified because of potential future dealings with him. "He was tough. But in that case he showed real compassion and insight."

The same year — 1994 — Aiona sentenced tour company president Robert Moore to a maximum life term with the possibility of parole for shooting his wife, Lani Moore.

Lani Moore had refused to testify against her husband, saying she and their children needed him. Some people in the community argued that Moore had suffered enough.

Aiona's only discretion came in imposing the minimum sentence on Moore's life term. Instead of a minimum 20-year term, Aiona set the minimum at six years and was praised for methodically explaining his decision from the bench.

"This is not just a case between Bob Moore and his wife," Aiona said at the time. "This is about domestic violence and the effect it has had ... upon our community."

Perhaps the most highly publicized case before Aiona came the same year when he sentenced the first of three defendants for repeatedly raping and stabbing a 21-year-old woman at Magic Island and stabbing and torturing her partially blind, male friend.

The violence horrified people in the community. And many of them applauded Aiona's sentence of seven life terms for Saofaiga Loa Jr.

Some lawyers called it over the top.

At the time, City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro irritated Aiona by urging people to call or write Aiona to impose a harsh sentence.

Aiona responded by saying, "I have not and will not succumb to pressure from anyone."

Recently, Kaneshiro offered only praise for Aiona.

"He was a very competent judge, a tough judge," Kaneshiro said. "He knew the streets and had a lot of street smarts so a lot of excuses people gave, he saw right through."

High point to retirement

Aiona said at his campaign headquarters recently that some of his most grueling cases were the ones that got no attention, especially ones held privately in Family Court.

"One of the hardest things I've ever had to do," he said, pausing for a moment, "is terminate parental rights. Do you have any idea how hard that is for me to do? I have four kids myself."

In 1996, in what Aiona called the highlight of his judicial career, he was appointed head of the Drug Court program and became its primary architect. The idea was modeled after Mainland courts and gives nonviolent defendants a chance to stay out of prison through rehabilitation.

Two years later, Aiona retired. Most of the attention focused on his comments that his $86,780 salary was too low, a stance that got little sympathy at the time from Hawai'i's working families.

Recently, Aiona shook his head at the memory. There were other, more personal, reasons, he said.

Reed Richards, Aiona's nephew, had recently died of cancer and left two young children. Richards was 33.

"That really affected me," Aiona said. "Reed was like my brother, very, very close."

He and other family members looked for programs to help Richards' children cope and found them lacking. So Aiona helped organize the Reed Richards Foundation that has raised more than $30,000 through four annual golf tournaments to pay for a bereavement program geared for children.

Not interested ... yet

After he announced his retirement, Aiona immediately was invited to meet separately with Democratic and Republican Party leaders who spoke in vague terms about him someday running for office. He told both sides he wasn't interested.

"I had just retired," Aiona said. "I was going to spend more time with my family and have the option of being more flexible."

He started filling in at Family Court, got hired as a mediator, hearings officer and occasional arbitrator. He also became a partner in a Kailua law firm with Gerard Jervis, the former Bishop Estate trustee who resigned in disgrace in 1999 amid an estate scandal and personal indiscretions.

Today the Kailua firm of Jervis, Aiona & Pico specializes in personal injury cases. Aiona doesn't list his partnership with the firm in his biography of accomplishments but said he had "nothing to hide."

Aiona said his relationship with Jervis goes back much further to their days as students at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai'i.

"Gerry has made some big mistakes and he knows that I disagree with them and don't support some of his actions and decisions," Aiona said. "We have discussed it and he knows how I feel. I support him as a friend, and it's part of my Hawaiian values to help those who have fallen. I believe in redemption and helping a friend of the family when they fall."

Aiona voted for Lingle for governor in 1998. And sometime between 2000 and 2001, the Republicans came back with an invitation that he run for lieutenant governor.

This time Aiona was interested.

"Lieutenant governor," he said. "That's a little different than the House or City Council. I would have a direct relation with the departments that affect the courts. I could have a direct say in how the Department of Corrections is run. That intrigued me."

Aiona has since had to give up all outside activities that generated income to keep up with statewide appearances that keep him running morning to night, seven days in a row. His family lives in Kapolei and gets by on savings and Vivian's salary as a passenger service representative for Air Canada.

"Unfortunately, I didn't realize this was a 24/7 type thing," Aiona said. "Maybe I was naive."

But Aiona stays in the race, he said, for a simple reason.

"This is my home."

Reach Dan Nakaso at 525-8085 or dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.