Saturday, December 30, 2017


Like many incidents in courtrooms where a situation erupts suddenly into a physical struggle, an interruption at Friday’s session of the trial to decide whether Native Hawaiians who have occupied the Coco Palms Resort property in Wailua should be thrown off the land arose suddenly.

During the morning session, in which the legendary Coco Palms performer Larry Rivers was being asked a seemingly endless series of questions completely unrelated to the case, the courtroom audience grew restless.

First, Punohu Kekaualua, of Wailua, made a remark out loud questioning the judge’s authority, for which he was ejected and his cell phone confiscated. His mother, 70-year-old Debra Kekaualua, of Anahola, came to his verbal defense and she, too, was ejected.

A half hour or so later, when court reconvened after a recess, Punohu Kekaualua got into an argument with a court bailiff about whether he had been thrown out of court for the entire day’s session. Court personnel checked with Judge Michael Soong, who told them both Kekaualuas were banished all day.

But Debra Kekaualua had different ideas. She spoke up, objecting loudly to her son being thrown out of court. Bailiff Lee Jeal decided he had heard and seen enough. He ordered all spectators to leave the courtroom. But before people could reach the doorway, he walked into the back corner of the very last bench, where Debra Kekaualua was sitting.

As she continued her verbal protest, Jeal picked her up and, as she struggled, carried her a few feet and then appeared to drop her back onto the bench. Things got really ugly after that.

Angrily, Jeal summoned additional uniformed security officers from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety — the sheriff’s office. They succeeded in getting everyone out of the courtroom and closed and locked the door.

But it wasn’t over yet.

From the hallway, Debra Kekaualua could be heard screaming. She was being, as the incident could be pieced together later, handcuffed and taken to a holding cell.

By this point, the tension in the courtroom and the hallway was palpable and threatened to get out of control of court personnel. Kauai Police Department officers were called. Since the courthouse is directly across the street from police headquarters, KPD arrived within a few minutes, in force — five patrol cars and about 10 officers, including at least one lieutenant.

Debra Kekaualua emerged from the courthouse, having been freed by the court security officers. She was bleeding from both wrists, as well as her ankles. She said she sustained the injuries when she was cuffed and removed. She said she was told no charges would be filed against her. She went off to Wilcox Memorial Hospital.

As incidents in courthouses that get a little out of hand go, this one was unusually unfortunate. Jeal might have chosen an action different from picking up a very slightly built older woman and then dropping her as a couple of dozen spectators looked on and shouts of indignation became deafening. The optics, as they say, could probably not have been worse.

It being 2017, the incident was captured by numerous cell phone videos shot by spectators, getting to Facebook and other social media outlets within minutes.

The Garden Island’s Bethany Freudenthal caught the action on video, as well.

KPD officers later questioned witnesses after Debra Kekaualua complained she had been assaulted. They said they would review witness accounts to determine if any law enforcement action was required. There was no immediate announcement of whether the court or the sheriff’s office would conduct internal investigations.

The episode could be just another distraction in a case that appears to be proceeding in parallel universes. The plaintiffs —Tyler Greene and Chad Waters, the would-be redevelopers of Coco Palms — argue that the Native Hawaiian occupiers are on their property illegally and must be evicted under applicable Hawai`i and United States law.

The defendants, Noa Mau Espirito and Kamu Hepa, argue that Kingdom of Hawai`i land use law should prevail and they have repeatedly questioned whether the court has jurisdiction. They back that argument up by citing, among many other things, so-called royal patents, ownership documents involving land, awarded during the Kingdom days. They claim ownership of the property.

Unfortunately, that ignores the judge’s reality, which is that he has no choice but to apply applicable state law, which, experts in Native Hawai`i law have said, may render the royal patents essentially meaningless.

Confoundingly, Judge Soong has ruled he has no jurisdiction over whether the Coco Palms developers hold legal title to the property, which, he said, would need to be decided by another judge in another court.

Coco Palms, on the other hand, argues that establishing they have a legal title is unnecessary since all the resort property needs to prove is they have a deed and title insurance and are in legal possession.

Under Hawai`i law, there is apparently sound basis for this seemingly incongruous division of authority between two courts. But this is one example of how our legal system may make perfect sense to lawyers and judges, but leaves ordinary lay people puzzled. To put it mildly.

So it is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that Friday’s incident boiled over into a 70-year-old woman being picked up, then dropped, by a bailiff in the courtroom where the case is being tried as the proceeding devolved.

Many people have trouble understanding how the court system works. When the elements of disputing the jurisdiction of that court system mix with what was, at the very least, an undignified response to a woman expressing her opinions critical of the court, it is little wonder that the episode deteriorated so completely, and so quickly.

So in about 10 minutes on a Friday morning, disagreement over what the law is and what it means collided with operation of a court system many people simply don’t understand.