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American Board of Trial Advocates

Jean Aoki Receives
2008 ABOTA-Hawa'i Ha'aheo Award

Jean Y. Aoki has been a dedicated, innovative educator, a Board member of the Hawaii Teachers Association, and continues to be a leader in the Hawaii Chapter of the League of Women Voters ("the League"). Jean was born in Puunene, Maui, the daughter of immigrant parents from Japan. She graduated with honors from Baldwin High School. Jean's first choice was to pursue a career in journalism, but that would have required her to travel to the mainland during the height of World War II. Consequently, she stayed closer to home, attending the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and graduated in 1948 from the College of Education. Subsequently, she earned her fifth year teaching certificate, also from the University of Hawaii. Jean has one son, Dexter, and two grandchildren.

For a total of twenty-two years, Jean taught at Kapālama and 'Āina Haina Schools. She was a dedicated, energetic teacher and describes her teaching career as "years filled with a great deal of satisfaction and quite a bit of excitement even." In addition to the many innovative and creative activities focused on the children she taught, she also found time to serve on several Department of Education committees, among them were: one that reviewed the elementary social studies curriculum, another on devising a new report card, and one to select a science textbook.

Jean was also active in teacher governance. In 1963, she was elected to the Board of the Hawaii State Teachers Association as one of three directors representing the 'Oahu Education Association. That association was then in competition with the Hawaii Federation of Teachers, and she weathered not only the representation-election difficulties, but the first teachers' strike in Hawaii. Those were hardly ordinary times and frequently involved intense and highly-charged meetings.

Unfortunately, by 1973, Jean's affliction with a chronic health condition compelled her to take an early disability retirement. However, anyone who knows Jean will tell you, "Nothing will keep her down for long," and nothing did.

Although not feeling quite 100%, Jean accepted a friend's invitation to attend a meeting of the League, and, as they say, the rest is history. The League provided Jean with an opportunity to do meaningful volunteer work with flexible hours and on days that suited her needs. She served in almost every capacity, including President of the League, and she continues to be actively involved in, as she says, "making democracy work." Jean is passionate about many things and, particularly, about active participation by an informed citizenry to ensure that our democracy works as it should. Her passion is demonstrated in the numerous studies and reports she has helped to generate on a variety of subjects. One of these was a study and report on judicial independence, which was prompted by her desire to learn more about the "third branch" of government. As she says, "A better understanding of and appreciation for the third branch and its role in the governance of our state does help us understand many proposed statutes and constitutional amendments with greater clarity[.]" Jean currently is Chair of a ConCon Study Committee, and writing the committee's report keeps Jean as engaged as ever.

In recognition of her many significant contributions to the League, Jean was awarded the first Marion G. Saunders award for "Most Valuable Leaguer," established by the Hawaii League in 2003 in memory of Marion Saunders, who, with her husband Allan, co-founded the League in Honolulu and in Hawaii, as well as a commendation from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission for her outstanding contributions to ethics in government. ABOTA-Hawai'i is proud to present its 2008 Ha'aheo Award to Jean Aoki for her untiring efforts and her varied contributions to the people of Hawaii. We thank and salute her for her leadership and generosity with her talent, time, spirit, compassion, and dedication to enriching the lives of others in our community.

With much aloha,

Gerald Y. Sekiya, President

Jean's Acceptance Speech
2008 ABOTA-Hawaii Ha'aheo Award

November 9, 2008
Kahala Hotel and Resort, Maile Ballroom

Chief Justice Moon; Mr. Gerald Sekiya; Members of the Hawaii Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates,

It is with much humility and deepest appreciation that I thank you for this honor you have chosen to bestow upon me this evening.

This I do in the name of the League of Women Voters – because as an individual, Jean Aoki, I am a nobody. It is the League with its decades of service to the community and whatever reputation it has acquired as a responsible and credible public interest organization at all levels, national, state, and local, that lends any credibility to my voice when I have the opportunity to speak for League.

Where do the legal community and our organization share a common goal? I’m sure that we share more than one goal, but the most evident and overarching one would be that of making democracy work as it should, nationally and in all of the states of our union.

A fair and smoothly working judicial system equally accessible to all – the most powerful and those with little individual power -- is vital to making democracy work. And here I would like to give much credit to Justice Moon for encouraging members of the legal community to offer pro-bono service to those without the resources to seek the advice and assistance of lawyers.

An independent yet accountable judiciary, upholding its unique responsibilities as a co-equal branch of our government, accountable not to the whims and uninformed views of the citizenry but accountable to our constitutions and the laws of the land, is an important, a vital part of making democracy work.

I was startled by an ad or speech in which Senator McCain said, "I’m running to be the Commander-in-Chief, and Senator Obama is running to redistribute wealth…" or words to that effect.

You do not run to be the "Commander-in-Chief," you run for the Presidency – the head of the executive branch of the three co-equal branches. Should you attain the Presidency, then you become the Commander-in-Chief of the military, not the Commander-in-Chief of government. It is no wonder that so many of our students and even adults, when asked who runs our government, will answer, "the President."

And here I’d like to pause to commend the American Judicature Society-Hawaii Chapter’s Special Committee on Public Knowledge, Understanding and Confidence in the Courts for their final report emphasizing civic education as a necessary part of their goal. I’d also like to publicly apologize to the members of that committee on my inability to continue as a member of that committee due to an accident that immobilized me for several months, followed by my responsibilities to League to follow through on our ConCon surveys and planning and executing all of the events designed to provide as much information to the public as we could. It was an exciting, satisfying but grueling experience, but many Leaguers helped in this venture.

It was in 1997 and 1998 when I personally realized how little I knew about the judicial branch – when the state courts and the federal courts became involved in the controversy of the vote requirement for the passage of the ConCon question for a ConCon in 1998. Our state Supreme Court was involved, then the federal District Court in Hawaii, then the 9th Circuit Court. It was easy enough to get the drift of the debates through the different courts, but when you need to report on the event as I had to for our state and local League bulletins, you need more than a cursory understanding of the structure and the jurisdiction of the different courts, state and federal.

I was president at that time and after chairing our ConCon Study Committee, and then as president lead our organization in opposing ConCon.

It was soon after that that we received a packet of brochures and reports from our state Judiciary on the structure and responsibilities of the different levels of courts, and I seized on this opportunity to write a letter to Chief Justice Moon and the then-administrator of the Courts, Michael Broderick, and they both responded with offers of their assistance in any such venture on our part.

And we received their assistance and cooperation throughout our study, which ultimately concluded in a conference on Judicial Independence. This included the participation of representatives of the state Judiciary, the Hawaii State Bar Association, the American Judicature Society-Hawaii Branch, Hawaii Women Lawyers, the William S. Richardson School of Law, and yes, Bob Toyofuku of the Hawaii Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. We also had community groups like the Honolulu Media Council, American Association of University Women, and American Civil Liberties Union. We could not have accomplished this without their deep involvement, especially in deciding on the topics and the national and local experts to include. This was funded by grants from the League of Women Voters of the United States Education Fund and another grant from a private foundation.

Going back to Making Democracy Work, the late Bob Rees, with whom I had a good working relationship, wrote on the 1996-1998 ConCon Campaigns for the Honolulu Weekly and he included these lines, "Even the League of Women Voters listed every reason for opposing ConCon except the one closest to its heart – that too much democracy can be a dangerous thing."

This really gave me pause, and I did some soul searching. Did I consciously or unconsciously harbor this view and consciously or unconsciously bury it? Maybe there is some truth to that. If not, why do we emphasize informed participation in government? Why are we so anxious to try to present as much information on any proposed amendment to our constitution? Yes, an informed public works best for democracy; however, it is even better when every citizen participates and makes an effort to become informed.

But even with the most informed public, democracy cannot work without a judiciary to see that everyone’s rights are protected, that a powerful majority of the population does not trample on the right of the minority groups including their access to fair and impartial adjudication of their civil and criminal problems, and to erase the perception, and sometimes the reality, that the rich and powerful enjoy more justice than the poor and less powerful.

There are problems nationally. As long as political partisanship and special interests influence or determine the selection of judges and justices in the highest courts of our land, there will be some injustice. And that’s where we need to fight together along with other community groups.

We need to carry this campaign of the importance of making sure that the three branches of government remain co-equal, that each has clear responsibilities and authority, that each performs its responsibilities of being a check on the other two. That citizens understand the importance of keeping one branch from becoming all powerful.

We together, the legal and lay communities, must carry these messages to the legislative bodies locally and national and to our executive branches, and to the citizens of our community. We can each do it in our own way, and work together when the occasion calls for it.

But together, we must Make Democracy Work!

Thank you.

[transcribed from Jean's notes by JoAnn Maruoka]

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