An Advocate For All Hawai‘i

An Advocate For All Hawai‘i By Teresa Bill

Compelling biographies not only celebrate the individual strengths, challenges, and philosophies of a particular person (the “great woman” formula); they reflect the life and times of their subjects’ communities. Harriet Bouslog’s biography is more than the “larger than life” tale of a dramatic, intelligent person whose worldview demanded the full expression of constitutional rights for all. Harriet’s life work is a public record interweaving the class, race, and civil rights issues confronting post-WWII Hawai’i. It is too simplistic to chart Bouslog’s legal cases and label them-this one is about working people; that one is about Hawaiians; this one is about free political expression. But a few early cases in Harriet’s career reflect and intersect the complex layers of Hawai’i’s communities and history.

Harriet Bouslog’s education, race (Caucasian), and class status afforded her the opportunity to challenge the class structure of Hawai’i. In 1941, after working two years at the law firm of Stanley, Vitousek, Pratt & Wynn, one of the law firms representing the “Big Five”. Harriet became the eighth woman admitted to the Hawai’i Bar. She clearly understood the power structure of the Territory of Hawai’i, and the Big Five’s grip on economic, legal, and political power. A female attorney in an otherwise white, male profession, Harriet was an “outsider” in more ways than one, using her legal education and social position for radical social change.

Challenging The Social Structure

Released from the restrictions of martial law, post-WWII Hawai’i was a maelstrom of social change, and the working people of Hawai’i were at the core of this new social wind, challenging the unilateral power of the Big Five on all fronts. ILWULocal142 (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) members and their Political Action Committees challenged the economic and legislative pillars of the Big Five’s power, while Harriet Bouslog challenged the legal framework that supported their power.

When Harriet Bouslog stepped off the plane in Honolulu in October 1946 she knew exactly what she was getting into, as she jumped into the middle of the ILWULocal142’s sugar strike. She had over one hundred cases, ranging from unlawful assembly, contempt of restraining orders, conspiracy, and assault, that had arisen out of the strike. While the judicial system is independent, laws are enforced to maintain the social order. In 1946 Hawai’i, that social order included the economic and political dominance of the Big Five. It is more than “labor folklore” to claim that the ILWULocal142 and their members couldn’t find a lawyer in the Territory to defend them. It is a truth that illuminates the far-reaching machinations of power. How could local, working-class citizens receive justice in the legal system if they couldn’t even acquire an attorney?

Harriet challenged the “Assembly & Riot” charges, arguing that the constitutional right to free speech and assembly was still applicable in the Territory, even for strikers. Arising out of the same picket line arrests, Harriet challenged the racial and ethnic composition of the jury pools assembled for these “assembly & riot” and “assault” charges. She argued that an all-white jury pool systematically excluding local men could not constitute “a jury of one’s peers.”

Challenging Capital Punishment

While Harriet Bouslog had a personal mission to fight capital punishment, her successful pro bono work to gain a stay of execution for John Palakiko and James Majors reflected and built upon the fierce community feeling that justice would not be served in their execution. The legal questions revolved around forced confessions and the misapplication of first degree murder to a death that was not premeditated. But the community and social questions revolved around why non-white or Hawaiian defendants were disproportionately given capital punishment. In the 1950 trial of Palakiko and Majors, the community’s memory of the racist and class-biased “injustice” rendered in the 1931 Massie case — four elite white men convicted of the vigilante murder of a young local Hawaiian man were given commuted sentences of one hour — was clear and vibrant. Non-white defendants were receiving disproportionately harsh sentences.

McCarthyism and Free Speech

John and Aiko Reinecke’s dismissal from their public school positions in 1948 because of their “un-American” teachings was a harbinger of the public assault against Hawai’i’s leftist political community. Smith Act trials and the Taft-Hartley Act decimated the U.S. labor movement of its leftist leadership, and Hawai’i’s own Smith Act trial included ILWULocal142 leader Jack Hall. Harriet was involved in the defense for both cases, but she made legal history with her own lawsuit (‘1n re Sawyer’), appealing the suspension of her license to practice law. These disciplinary proceedings arose out of Harriet’s public statements criticizing the Smith Act and McCarthyism. She appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately guaranteed attorneys their right to free speech. By no means the end of Harriet Bouslog’s illustrious legal career, “In re Sawyer’ is an instructive place to conclude. The Ninth Circuit Court noted that Harriet “might have helped her cause by showing a little humbleness,” and articulated Harriet’s essence when noting, “Respondent is adamant that she only exercised her constitutional right.”3 Any gendered expectation of humility was soundly rejected. Harriet continued her legal practice, serving Hawai’i’s working people with cases both large and small until she retired in 1978. Legal institutions reflect social forces as well as the highest aspirations of our citizens. Harriet Bouslog pursued her legal challenges beyond Hawai’i’s local courts to federal venues and the U.S. Supreme Court. While some of her appeals were reversed, her arguments convinced the Hawai’i Territorial Legislature to amend offending laws. We owe a debt to Harriet Bouslog for her vigilant application of the U.S. Constitution to protect all of Hawai’i’s people.


“Whenever I think of democracy, I think of a meeting I attended at Lahaina, Maui, in November 1946 at the end of the 79-day sugar strike. The meeting was to consider whether the Lahaina unit would go back to work under the agreement reached as to the other units, while the Pioneer Mill Company refused to re-employ eleven of the Lahaina strike leaders who had been charged with unlawful assembly and riot. There were 600 to 700 people at that meeting. They were people who had been through 79 days of strike. They were people whose children needed shoes and clothes and food. . . . To a man, those union members voted to refuse to return to work until those eleven men were guaranteed reinstatement without discrimination. ” –Harriet Bouslog, Fear



1. The “Big Five” refers to a group of corporations with interlocking directorates whose subsidiaries controlled most of Hawai’i’s agriculture, transportation, banking, energy and utilities. These companies were Alexander and Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, American Factors, C. Brewer, and Theo H. Davies.
2. When Harriet returned to Hawai’i in 1946, she joined seven other active female members of the Hawai’i Bar, including Sau Ung Loo Chan, the first woman from a racial minority to be admitted to the Hawai’i Bar, in 1943.
3. In re Sawyer, 9th Circuit, 260 F2d, 189.