A Fine Federal Judge Passes Away

Sam King made a big difference, and not just in Hawai`i

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Roger Beers, a lawyer who worked for Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, once said that environmental cases are the most political of all. He meant that in environmental cases, the biases of the judge in a case are more likely to steer his decisions than in other kinds of cases.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that our lawyers were always happy to draw federal judge Sam King should they be filing suit in Hawai`i. His biases–that’s too loaded a word, of course, maybe his instincts–tended to be on the side of people and the natural world.

The case I know most about of his–two cases, in fact–was filed by Mike Sherwood, Earthjustice’s longest-serving lawyer by far. Mike was trying to gain federal protection for the palila, a small bird that lives only on Mauna Kea on the Big Island. The birds were disappearing fast owing to feral goats and sheep that were munching on the palila’s only food source. Sherwood asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the palila, but the agency said it was helpless–the sheep and goats weren’t killing the birds directly.

So, Sherwood went to court and drew judge King. In broad terms, Sherwood argued that it was wrong–and illegal–to interpret the law as saying that the Endangered Species Act protected species but not their habitat. Judge King agreed, and ordered the feral sheep and goats removed.

A second suit was needed to finish the job, and judge King remained a staunch ally of the palila. King’s was the first court to interpret the law this way. He was brave enough to blaze the way with a novel interpretation. His decision was cited far and wide and was eventually amended into the law explicitly.

The obituaries indicate that judge King was respected and popular throughout the Hawaiian population when he died Dec. 8 at the age of 94.

"Sam King was a good judge and a good man," Sherwood said, and that’s about all you could ask.

Tom Turner literally wrote the books about Earthjustice during his more-than-25 years with the organization. A lifelong resident of Berkeley, CA, he is most passionate about Earthjustice's maiden issue: wilderness preservation.