What has caused chaos and puzzlement in the Coco Palms trial is a failure of the one of the parties to understand proper legal procedure and a court’s jurisdiction. Land is unique and a right to possession often requires a quick legal method to determine possession of it.
A common example of summary possession is found in landlord and tenant cases. A renter stops paying on his/her lease. The landlord needs to secure summary possession. His remedy is to apply to the District Court, a court of limited jurisdiction, for the right of immediate possession. The landlord’s proof of the right to possession is the lease and non-payment of rent.
The issue of tittle to property can only be tried in the Circuit Courts of Hawaii. That is a much more involved legal process that could take years to secure a final resolution of who is the rightful owner.
Coco Palms filed an action in ejectment seeking immediate possession of the land in the District Court, a court whose jurisdiction is limited to determining the right of possession. It was incumbent on the defendants to immediately respond to this ejectment complaint and if they are asserting title, get the case transferred to the Circuit Court.
The result of this failure has been a confusing trial, with one side claiming an immediate right to possession and the defendants asserting title. Many times, during the proceedings Judge Michael Soong admonished the defendants that the only issue he has jurisdiction over is the right to possession.
Judge Soong has been patient and fair throughout the trial. At one point during the proceedings on Dec. 29 he was challenged by Hepa as not being Hawaiian. That is irrelevant to the issue of his impartiality. For the record he is Hawaiian. Perhaps the lack of understanding of the limited issue in this case makes one side feel he is being unfair.
Our legal system works best for all of us if we follow proper procedures. There is a distrust of lawyers and even judges because of lack of understanding of this basic principle. I applaud Judge Soong for his impartiality and fairness in this case. He understands his limitations and is doing his best to conduct a proper trial.
I write this because the confusion in this matter has been caused by a failure of the defendants to get the case into the right court to try their claim of title. American justice may appear to be puzzling to native people but it is the best form of dispute resolution for all the people living here. Puzzles are created by ourselves and not the legal system.
William J. Fernandez is a retired lawyer and judge and lives in Kapaa.