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Florendo, longest-serving Hawaii Island judge, retiring this month

Updated: 
June 22, 2014 - 1:03am

On a recent afternoon in District Court, a defendant was able to surprise Judge Joseph Florendo.

The man, accused of shoplifting alcohol from a Kona store, told Florendo he bore a striking resemblance to Kamehameha III.

Florendo, Hawaii Island’s longest-serving full-time judge, responded, in a slightly bemused tone, that was the first time he’d ever heard the comparison. Then the judge completed the hearing.

It’s just one example of the kinds of unexpected moments Florendo has observed during nearly 30 years on the bench. He has served under three state Supreme Court chief justices and during the terms of seven Hawaii County mayors.

Florendo will hang up his robe for the last time June 24. He was sworn in as judge, to serve in West Hawaii, in November 1986. He was in his mid-thirties at the time, having previously worked as a public defender. During those days, Kona attorneys might work in shorts and T-shirts at the office before throwing on a suit and tie to head to court. Courtrooms bounced around several locations before the Judiciary settled on the former hospital building in Kealakekua.

“Like with anything you do, you want to be able to love what you do and have enthusiasm for it,” Florendo said, explaining how he came to the decision to retire. “Judges in general really enjoy their jobs. If you have control of your workload, a sense of respect and feel you’re achieving good things, you feel you can keep working.”

But his job also has a lot of repetition. At the start of many District Court hearings, particularly the ones in which a large group of defendants wait for their case to be called, Florendo reads aloud a significant amount of information for the courtroom full of defendants. The script doesn’t change. He also asks each defendant the same, legally required questions.

“I’ve been there and I’ve done that,” Florendo said. “It’s not as challenging. It’s just time to move on.”

For many years, Florendo was the youngest judge in the state. He applied for the position at the urging of his boss, Public Defender Barry Rubin. At the time, Hawaii was in the midst of the Japanese investment boom and Kona was perceived to be the state’s “gold coast,” he said.

Florendo said the Judiciary has maintained a form of constancy during the almost three decades he has spent on the bench. At the same time, he has had the freedom to test new things and try new ideas. Lawyers file their motions digitally and people can appear in court by telephone or videoconference.

As Hawaii Island’s population has grown and changed, the need for interpreter services has increased. The Judiciary responded with phone-in interpreter services, as recently demonstrated for a German defendant whose English skills were good, but not quite enough to follow the quick pace of a District Court hearing. Within 30 minutes of Florendo requesting the interpreter, someone was on the phone, able to translate the legal proceedings into the defendant’s native language.

The District Court in Kona also began accommodating that need by scheduling monthly court hearings just for speakers of Spanish and Marshallese.

Florendo has had interpreters in his courts translating into Thai, French and other Pacific Island languages, he said.

The District Court was first to use forms, allowing defendants to complete some information in writing, rather than through discussions with the court, he said.

Although the types of crimes people in West Hawaii commit haven’t really changed during his time as a judge, Florendo has observed other changes.

“It’s just more generational,” he said.

Florendo has seen generations move through his courtroom, too.

“I’ve seen people and their kids and sometimes their kids’ kids,” he said.

Florendo, who is active in aikido and owns several rental properties, said he expects to be busy despite the retirement. He said he’s got a mental list of things he’d like to do, and then perhaps take on some traveling.

It’s time, he said, to allow someone else to become judge.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “I just think a new person would be good for the community, put their imprint on the community.”