After a three-decade career of milestones, Maui judge retires
Attorneys say Judge Bissen ‘demanded nothing short of excellence’
WAILUKU — During a career in public service spanning more than three decades, 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen’s path has been marked with awards and firsts.
He received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Men’s March Against Violence Committee in Honolulu in 1999 and was selected as Lawyer of the Year by the Maui County Bar Association in 2001, the same year he was inducted into the St. Anthony High School Alumni Hall of Fame.
He was the first judge to come from the state Department of Public Safety, where he was interim director when he was appointed to the 2nd Circuit bench in April 2005, becoming the first Family Circuit Court judge.
He was the first Neighbor Island alumnus to receive the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2013, the year he also became the first 2nd Circuit Mental Health Court judge.
But the recognition isn’t what Bissen thinks of when he reflects on his 34 years in government service, starting in 1987 as a county deputy prosecutor.
“For me, the biggest thing that stands out is the relationships made,” said Bissen, who retired Thursday after 16 years and eight months on the bench, including the last two and a half years as chief judge. “I’m so shocked and so honored and I am just humbled by the blessings that have come my way over my legal career.”
After receiving the 2021 Jurist of the Year Award from Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald in October, Bissen received one more honor when Recktenwald proclaimed Thursday to be Chief Judge Richard T. Bissen Jr. Day in state courts.
The proclamation cited Bissen’s “highest integrity” as a judge, as well as other qualities that many in the Maui community have long recognized.
“As soon as he was on the bench, he displayed all the critical skills of a successful judge — and communication was clearly one of his many skills,” said retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza. “I was always impressed that he had an understanding as well as respect for the human condition.
“He understood people would have challenges in life. He had a way of communicating that to try to steer people in the right direction.”
From the start, Bissen presided in a high-volume courtroom, for a few years handling temporary restraining orders along with domestic violence and criminal cases.
The Family Court cases “were rewarding cases to be able to resolve,” Bissen said, noting most defendants ended up changing their pleas rather than going to trial.
He presided over 180 trials, drawing on his previous experience as lead prosecutor in about 60 trials and second chair for another dozen.
Deputy Prosecutor Brandon Segal, who completed his first jury trial before Bissen, said the judge’s “years of experience as a litigator were a valuable asset to the Judiciary and legal community.”
“Judge Bissen demanded nothing short of excellence from attorneys who appeared before him and that meant you had to be prepared and understand the issues, law and facts,” Segal said. “For newer attorneys, that could be intimidating. At the same time, Judge Bissen would often say that it’s called the ‘practice of law’ for a reason — lawyers learn most of their trial advocacy skills in the courtroom, not in law school.”
Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Andrew Martin said, “I really cannot even begin to tell you how much I think Judge Bissen means to this community.”
“For me personally, in terms of people who have had the greatest impact on me as an attorney, Judge is right at the top of the list,” Martin said. “The time that he has taken to provide me with feedback, advice or encouragement, not just as a young attorney, but even to this day, has been invaluable.”
After being a founding member of the Maui Drug Court in 2000 when he was the head county prosecutor, Bissen became backup Drug Court judge when 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Shackley Raffetto retired in 2012, then took over as Drug Court judge when Cardoza retired in 2019.
The Jurist of the Year Award recognized Bissen’s leadership in the pandemic when the 2nd Circuit became the first in the state to restart jury trials in December 2020.
Whether it was planning for jury trials or closing the courthouse in a storm, “his gift is to be able to bring all these different facets of people together,” said Hana Kraker, his judicial assistant who worked with Bissen for about 16 years, including when he started as a law clerk for retired Judge Richard Komo.
She said people felt comfortable talking to Bissen, knowing he would hear what they said.
“It’s his willingness to listen and take everything into account before he moves forward,” said Kraker, who also retired Thursday after 40 years with the Judiciary. “He’s able to bring everybody together to an agreement.
“That’s his biggest strength, besides just being really smart.”
Judge Cardoza, who has known Bissen since he was a student at St. Anthony School, watched him develop an interest in the law when he did career shadowing with Cardoza, then a deputy prosecutor.
“Not surprisingly, he impressed me as someone who was intelligent and articulate, even at a young age,” Cardoza said.
He said Bissen was a strong student and athlete at St. Anthony, where he was part of a Maui Interscholastic League football championship team and was student body president when he graduated in 1979 after skipping a grade.
One summer, needing to earn money, Bissen took a night job so he could volunteer during the day at the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“He really impressed everyone,” Cardoza said. “He was a very hard worker and had a great deal of interest in what he was doing.”
Bissen earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Santa Clara in 1983 and his law degree from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1986.
He served as law clerk for Judge Komo before Cardoza, then the county prosecuting attorney, hired Bissen to be a deputy prosecutor in July 1987.
“He quickly excelled,” Cardoza said. “His career really took off in a very short period of time. He became one of the lead litigators for the office, handling some very complex cases and doing a very good job at it.”
Starting with his first job as deputy prosecutor, Bissen said “every job I’ve held since then was better than the one before.”
“I never thought that was possible,” he said. “When I was in the job I was in, I always thought that was the best job — it can’t get better than this.”
He left the prosecutor’s office in 1991 and formed the law firm of Cardoza, Fukuoka and Bissen before returning to the office in 1992.
He was appointed prosecuting attorney to head the department in 1995 and served two terms, first under Mayor Linda Lingle, then Mayor James “Kimo” Apana.
When Mayor Alan Arakawa didn’t reappoint Bissen to a third term, “I was available to try something new,” Bissen said. He was appointed in January 2003 to be first deputy for state Attorney General Mark Bennett.
Twenty-one divisions reported to Bissen in the office of 150 lawyers, making it the largest law firm in the state.
“I got to make a lot of administrative decisions,” he said. “That was rewarding.”
The job took Bissen and his family to Oahu, a move he said he otherwise probably wouldn’t have made.
“But I’m so grateful I did,” he said. “It increased my leadership opportunities and skills. I made many more relationships.”
Then in December 2004, he was called on to be acting director of the state Department of Public Safety, heading one of the largest state departments with 2,300 employees and about 4,000 inmates.
“It was an enormous responsibility,” Bissen said. “I enjoyed the issues and the people.
“It was so vibrant. There was a lot of activity every day, and every day was something new. I found it pretty exciting work. I loved going in the office daily.”
In May 2005, when Bissen was confirmed to fill a new position for a fourth 2nd Circuit judge, he and his family, including his wife, Kaihi, and daughters Sayble, Kaanohi and Keapo, returned to Maui.
Then-Chief Justice Ronald Moon said Bissen was the only judge who came to the bench from Public Safety.
“I was probably the only judge who knew exactly where people were going when I sent them to jail,” Bissen said.
As a judge, Bissen said “one of my best memories” was surprising Judge Cardoza by having the Law Library at Hoapili Hale named for him in September.
“I don’t mind crediting him with everything that’s happened in my professional life,” Bissen said. “He’s the guy that influenced me, whether he meant to or not.”
Cardoza said Bissen’s parents, Richard Sr. and Edna Bissen, who both served in the military, “were the perfect role models for him and really are the foundation for what he’s achieved in life.”
“What they did through their conduct and hard work really settled into his thinking,” Cardoza said. “He also understood the role that parents play, perhaps one of the most important roles we as human beings can have. I think he understood that and he took that to the bench, which made him very successful.
“I’m sure, looking down on him, they’re very, very pleased with what he’s done with his life, no doubt extremely proud of him.”
Bissen acknowledged other professional mentors, including Judges Raffetto and Komo, as well as Chief Justice Recktenwald, 1st Circuit Chief Judge Mark Browning and Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge Lisa Ginoza.
In the 2nd Circuit, Bissen said he will remember Chief Court Administrator Sandy Kozaki, Deputy Chief Court Administrators Marsha Yamada and Ernest Delima and Malia Ferreira, administrator of the Court & Operational Support Services Branch, for their professionalism.
Bissen said his career path wasn’t one he planned.
“I never dreamed of being the prosecutor, working in state government, on a governor’s cabinet, mayor’s cabinet or judge,” he said. “I just wanted to be an attorney — that was a goal I set for myself. I wanted to be the best trial attorney I could be. That’s what I thought I would do for the rest of my career. And then opportunities came around.”
Bissen, who is 59 years old, said serving as a judge was “the highlight of my career.”
In his retirement from the bench, “I plan to continue serving my community, possibly by pursuing elected office,” he said.
“I feel like I’m old enough to have gained experience in all the places that I’ve worked, but I’m young enough to still be able to contribute to our community,” he said. “I love Maui. I love the people of Maui. Maui has been good to me my whole life. I want to continue serving it.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.