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Editorʻs note (Feb. 20, 2024): Burnsʻ wife Emme Tomimbang, trailblazer in the Filipino community and a pioneer in radio and television, died on Feb. 19, 2024..

James S. Burns

The University of Hawaiʻi expressed great sorrow at the passing of the Honorable James S. Burns. Judge Burns served as a senior advisor at the UH William S. Richardson School of Law and was a longtime supporter of the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), which was named after his father, the former Govenor John Burns.

Burns, a 1962 graduate of Villanova Law School, retired in 2007 as the chief judge of the state’s second-highest court, the Hawaiʻi Intermediate Court of Appeals.

Burns is survived by his wife, Emme Tomimbang and two adult children. Services are pending.

Beloved member of the law school ʻohana

William S. Richardson School of Law Dean Avi Soifer invited Judge Burns to become a member of the law school ʻohana more than a decade ago, both to anchor it firmly to Hawaiʻi’s past, and to honor and benefit from the presence of Judge Burns, one of the state’s living legends. Through his many talk story times with law students, his practical advice to all and his humorous comments, Judge Burns built an enduring legacy at the law school.

“He became known as The Father of Modern Hawaiʻi Family Law because of the many family law decisions he penned,” said Associate Professor Calvin Pang, a friend and longtime colleague. “The Hawaiʻi Chapter of the American Inns of Court, a group that brings top attorneys and judges into the company of law students, renamed itself the James S. Burns Aloha Chapter, American Inns of Court IV because of Judge Burns’s many contributions.”

Burns holding ti leaf and looking at foliage
James S. Burns at the William S. Richardson School of Law courtyard garden.

Judge Burns is remembered as a mentor for students and as the “gardener” for the school’s lush courtyard ti garden that was a place of reflection and inspiration for students.

“I have a hard time being where there aren’t plants. When I saw that the courtyard planter was barren, and the other part was infested with weeds and unsightly ground cover, I decided to change it,” Judge Burns said a few years ago.

Soifer said it wonderful to have Judge Burns at the school on a regular basis. “He is remarkably unassuming, yet we all benefit from his deep knowledge of Hawaiʻi and of our law and his common sense—and everybody appreciates his dry sense of humor.”

Burns speaking at a podium
James Burns delivers the Charge to the Class at the 2013 White Coat Ceremony
James Burns and his wife Emme Tomimbang at the 2015 JABSOM gala.

Honoring his father’s legacy

Every year, without fail, JABSOM Dean Jerris R. Hedges noted that Burns would meet with incoming first-year medical students to tell them, first-hand, about the school’s history and why it is vitally important to have a medical school as part of the University of Hawaiʻi.

In 2014, at a gathering of medical school alumni, Burns said, “This is a dream come true. My father would be very proud of the fact that his vision was actually accomplished and we’re actually producing sufficient doctors to take care of old folks like me. Which I think is great. That’s called real vision. I’m really proud of this school. I’m proud to have the name Burns attached to this school. And I congratulate all of you for all you do for it and I urge you to continue to do more.”

“He has been a good friend and trusted advisor to me; someone who always had the school’s best interests at heart,” said Hedges. “James Burns embodied his father’s legacy, a commitment to provide educational opportunity at the highest level to the children of Hawaiʻi; a legacy cherished by every graduate of the John A. Burns School of Medicine.”

Burns shares recollections of the founding of the John A. Burns School of Medicine

James S. Burns Recollections of JABSOM in 2015 from UHMed on Vimeo.

This story was compiled from the William S. Richardson School of Law and John A. Burns School of Medicine stories.

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