1916-2005: Bert Kobayashi, former state high court judge
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
Former Hawai'i Supreme Court associate justice and state attorney general Bert T. Kobayashi Sr., known for his skills as a mediator in labor disputes and respected for his work ethic, integrity and compassion, died Thursday in Honolulu. He was 89.
"He's the finest gentleman I've ever known, such an ethical man; absolutely honest, absolutely trustworthy," senior U.S. District Judge Samuel P. King said yesterday of his longtime friend. "The only thing wrong with him was he went to Harvard. I went to Yale."
Kobayashi became the state's attorney general in 1962, the first person appointed by Gov. John Burns to his Cabinet. In 1969 Burns appointed him to the state Supreme Court, where he served until retirement in 1979.
In 1975, at the request of Gov. George Ariyoshi, Kobayashi worked closely with federal mediator Robert T. Castrey in settling a longshore dispute that threatened to shut down Hawai'i's waterfront. Kobayashi had previously worked with Castrey in 1972 to settle a waterfront dispute that flared into a 72-hour strike before it was settled.
Advertiser labor writer Charles Turner noted in 1975 that "as in earlier mediation, including peace-making efforts when he was the state's attorney general, Kobayashi served without extra compensation."
Kobayashi was 46 years old when he became state attorney general. His law partners then were Russell Kono, Alfred Laureta and George Ariyoshi, and leaving private practice for the $18,500-a-year government job meant a nearly 50 percent pay cut for a man supporting his four children and four nephews, five of whom were in college.
Burns said of Kobayashi, "I know his experience will be invaluable in administering the many complex problems" facing the state, among them antitrust issues.
In a 1964 interview with The Advertiser, Kobayashi, a deliberate and strong-willed man, gave his perspective of what law means to Hawai'i's attorney general.
"To me the law is a living thing," he said. "You've got to temper the technicalities of the law with humanity, or what might be called the human equation. When I interview perspective deputies, I tell them that everyone on my staff has to be honest and considerate. Enthusiasm must be tempered with humility, and of course, a man must have brains.
"I also make it plain that the burden of this office is on my shoulders. All policy decisions must be made by me. We work as a team, but every team must have a quarterback or leader. I don't want 'yes men.' Each man must speak his own convictions. But when I make a decision, that's got to be it."
Kobayashi would become one of Burns' most valued advisers.
"He did so much in public relationships for the government, especially in labor because he was a great mediator," said Laureta, a retired federal judge who served as state labor director in the same Burns Cabinet as Kobayashi.
In 1966, Kobayashi declined Burns' offer to become lieutenant governor to replace William S. Richardson, who had been appointed chief justice of the Hawai'i Supreme Court.
Three years later, Burns appointed Kobayashi to a 10-year term to the state Supreme Court. There he joined other Burns appointees Richardson, Masaji Marumoto, Bernard H. Levinson and Kazuhisa Abe.
Kobayashi retired from the Hawai'i Supreme Court in 1979, fulfilling his 10-year term.
Kobayashi graduated in 1935 from McKinley High School, where he was student body president and a Junior ROTC cadet colonel. He earned a scholarship to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and went on to Harvard Law School.
His father, Zengoro Kobayashi, who owned Palace Cafe, "borrowed 300 bucks for me to go," he said once in an interview. "I arrived in Boston at 2 a.m. and entered Harvard Law School without even enough money to pay the tuition. By working full-time, by borrowing and receiving help from my pop, I managed to raise a family and get through law school."
In 1946, he became a deputy city attorney, then a deputy public prosecutor. He entered private practice and served as an O'ahu district magistrate from 1952 to 1958, where he met King, and was elected president of the Hawai'i Bar Association in 1959.
His survivors include his wife, the former Victoria Tsuchiya of the Big Island, and four children.
"Bert was such a generous, compassionate man who had a feeling for people he met," said Evelyn Laureta, Alfred Laureta's wife.
Evelyn Laureta recalled that she was pregnant when her husband, a Fordham University law school graduate, applied for a position at Kobayashi's law firm. "He interviewed my husband and then told him he wanted to meet me because a wife is important, someone who could break a career," Evelyn Laureta said.
Kobayashi not only hired her husband but paid him $100 while Alfred Laureta studied for his Hawai'i bar exam, she said. That's what Bert Kobayashi was like, Evelyn Laureta said.
Reach Rod Ohira at email@example.com.
Correction: Masaji Marumoto was a Hawai'i Supreme Court associate justice. His last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.