State says it will provide Hawaiian interpreters in courts to those who request them

Court pulls warrant for professor who spoke Hawaiian in court 1.25.18
Published: Jan. 24, 2018 at 9:02 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 26, 2018 at 3:45 PM HST
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(Image: Kahookahi Kanuha)
(Image: Kahookahi Kanuha)

WAILUKU, MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Judiciary says it will provide interpreters to those seeking to speaking Hawaiian in court "to the extent reasonably possible."

The policy change was announced Friday afternoon, a day after a judge rescinded a bench warrant for a University of Hawaii professor who spoke Hawaiian in court.

The incident sparked outrage among Native Hawaiian activists, and raised questions about how Hawaiian — an official state language — can be used in courtrooms.

In a statement, the Judiciary said it will start implementing the new policy immediately. It also asked those interested to serve as Hawaiian interpreters to contact the Office of Equality and Access to the Courts at 539-4860.

The policy stands in contrast to the Judiciary's previous statements on using Hawaiian in court.

Earlier this week, the Judiciary said: "There is no legal requirement to provide Hawaiian language interpreters to court participants who speak English but prefer to speak in Hawaiian. In those cases, judges have the discretion to gr ant, or deny, a request for an interpreter."

On Wednesday, Judge Blaine Kobayashi issued an arrest warrant for Samuel Kaleikoa Kaeo after he addressed Kobayashi in Hawaiian. While Kaeo was standing in front of the judge, Kobayashi declared him not present for the hearing because he didn't identify himself in English.

"Since the court is unable to get a definitive determination for the record that the defendant seated in court is Mr. Samuel Kaeo, bailiff, make three calls for the defendant," Judge Blaine Kobayashi said in court.

Kaeo was in court to face charges stemming from an August 2017 protest over the construction of a new telescope atop Haleakala. A courtroom full of Kaeo's supporters immediately began yelling from the gallery after the warrant was issued.

But their outrage didn't move the judge. A bench warrant for $750 was issued for Kaeo's arrest, but was recalled a day later.

Some agree with the judge's decision. Former City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle said the judge was in the right.

"This gentleman is clearly and unequivocally, remarkably, proficient in the English language and what he's using this for is to follow up in the type of protest that he had on Haleakala," said Carlisle.

Current law states translation must be provided upon request to speakers with limited English proficiency.

Maui State Rep. Kaniela Ing hopes to change that.

"I want to change the law so it's folks with limited English proficiency or speakers of Hawaiian," Ing said.

Kaeo said while he's grateful the warrant was dropped, he wasn't told why the judge decided to recall it.

"This judge, I think he fails realize there's been a long movement of revitalization of Hawaiian language and the ability for Hawaiians to express themselves in the court," Kaeo said. "This is not just about language. This is a larger questions in which Hawaiians have been struggling to become visible within Hawaii and the world."

In addition, a hearing was scheduled over the use of a Hawaiian language interpreter in the case.

Addressing his supporters outside a Wailuku courtroom Wednesday, Kaeo said the judge's decision to issue the arrest warrant left him confused.

"I dealt with this judge maybe 15 times before. So, obviously, it had nothing to do with they couldn't recognize me," he said. "You see what the issue was? It wasn't about me. It was about the fact that I was speaking Hawaiian. But these small obstacles are the kinds of things we overcome."

Kaeo was one of six people arrested following the August 2017 Haleakala protest, and was among hundreds who gathered to try to prevent construction crews from getting through.

Kaeo had requested a Hawaiian interpreter during his trial, but the judge denied his request. Hawaiian and English are the state's official languages.

The case also drew rebuke from Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamanaopono Crabbe, who said on Thursday that it's relieved the arrest warrant has been rescinded.

"While this incident should have never occurred, it was a wake-up call for many in our community," Crabbe said. "That a Native Hawaiian was nearly arrested for speaking his mother tongue in 2018 indicates that despite the substantial progress made to revive the Hawaiian language over the years, we still have much further to go."

On Wednesday, the Maui Prosecutor's Office denied Hawaii News Now's request for an interview.

However, a motion to conduct the court proceedings in English explains its position.

"The practical realities of requiring an interpreter this case would cause needless delay in the trial process and an unnecessary expense," prosecutors said, in court documents.

Kaeo is an associate professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

He is facing disorderly conduct, obstructing a sidewalk, and obedience to police officers charges stemming from the August protest. All three charges are petty misdemeanors.

The Hawaii State Judiciary issued a statement to Hawaii News Now on Wednesday stating, "there is no legal requirement to provide Hawaiian language interpreters to court participants who speak English but prefer to speak in Hawaiian. In those cases, judges have the discretion to grant, or deny, a request for an interpreter."

Supporters for Kaeo are organizing a rally for Friday at the Old Wailuku Courthouse from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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