William S. Richardson named Chief Justice
As Chief Justice of the Hawai'i Supreme Court, William S. Richardson, a "local boy" of Hawaiian-Chinese-Caucasian ancestry, granted the public greater rights to beaches and state waters, sweeping aside a century of legal precedents in the field of property rights. Richardson drew criticism from the legal profession but won raves from the public. His activist court helped expand native Hawaiian rights, gave the public greater access to private lands and beaches, and awarded new land created by lava flows to the state instead of to nearby property owners. Richardson also broadened the rights of citizens to challenge land court decisions.
In December 1973, in its most controversial decision, the Hawai'i Supreme Court partially overturned a Kaua'i circuit court judgement in the McBryde
case and announced a dramatically new doctrine of water rights. Largely ignoring Hawaiian case law since the turn of the century, the Richardson court went back to the time of the monarchy to determine the intent of native kings with respect to water rights. The court came to a clear conclusion: grants of water rights to landowners by kings had been limited to actual need, and other water had been reserved for public use. The court then declared that Hawaii's waters were no longer a privately owned commodity. Although recognizing private appurtenant, or accessory, rights, the court placed the basic ownership of all waters with the state, prohibited the transfer of appurtenant rights, and abolished the concepts of prescriptive rights and of surplus water.
Richardson fought for statehood, served as Hawai'i Democratic Party chairman from 1956 to 1962 and was lieutenant governor under Governor John Burns
before becoming Chief Justice.
The University of Hawai'i law school is named in Richardson's honor.