Tom Coffman’s portrait of Supreme Court justice Edward Nakamura is both an insightful biography and an engrossing political history of Hawai‘i. The Nisei life-story may sound familiar: born to immigrant parents, graduated from McKinley High, veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, attended University of Hawai‘i under the GI Bill, active during Statehood years; but it is strewn with surprise, resulting from Nakamura’s unshakable creed and unique angle of vision.
By working from the political gains of the ILWU, Justice Nakamura played a central role — unpublicized — in devising arguably the most progressive program of legislation in an American state: universal health care, temporary disability insurance, collective bargaining rights for public workers — all of which forever changed the Hawai‘i worker’s landscape.
Vaulted from relative anonymity onto the Hawai‘I Supreme Court, Nakamura was acclaimed for his powerful intellect, his writing, and, most of all, his iron will and integrity. In retirement, he became a dissenting moral force. He fought mismanagement in the State Retirement System, helped to block a highly controversial Supreme Court appointment, and agitated for separating the high court from the Bishop Estate. Nakamura in many ways acted as the public conscience and he left an inspiring legacy of far-reaching social legislation.
The book won the 2013 Ka Palapala Po‘okela Award of Excellence in nonfiction, presented by the Hawai‘i Book Publishers Association. (University of Hawai‘i Press, paperback, $14.99)