Story & photography by Kyle Ellison
When I’m asked whether I’ll need a public defender, I’m standing in the shade of a plumeria tree, surrounded by clusters of flowers.
The tree, it seems, is the unofficial public defender’s office outside of the Hāna Courthouse. The prosecution is across the lawn, gathered by the red and green ti plants.
Thankfully, I’m just here to observe the proceedings at the one-room wooden courthouse, which was built in 1871 on a hill overlooking Hāna Bay. Court is held the first Tuesday of each month, and of all Hawai‘i’s early courthouses that are listed as historic landmarks, Hāna’s is the only one that’s still in regular use.
Rather than making East Maui residents drive fifty-four miles (and two-and-a-half hours) to settle minor traffic violations at the County courthouse in Wailuku, a judge, two lawyers, two sheriffs, a bailiff and two other courtroom staff take the twenty-minute, chartered flight from Kahului Airport to Hāna.
When the courthouse was built, the trip would have taken at least a full day, and you would have had to travel by foot, horseback, canoe, or (twenty or so years later) by steamship. Back then, Hawai‘i was still an independent kingdom; today the Hāna Courthouse gives you the sense that you’re experiencing a living museum where thousands of people, over nearly fifteen decades, have had their brush with the law.