U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, the only Native Hawaiian federal justice currently serving, became the latest member of the judiciary to stand up to President Donald Trump’s attempts at a so-called Muslim ban. On March 15 Watson issued an injunction barring enforcement of Trump’s second executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
Watson, 50, is one of just two judges with indigenous heritage out of 1,352 active and semi-retired jurists; Diane Humetewa, Hopi, is a district judge in Arizona. Humetewa and Watson were appointed by President Barack Obama.
But who is this justice who at least one associate says keeps a very low profile? The Asian Pacific American Bar Association notes that Watson is the son of a Honolulu police officer and bank employee and the first in his family to graduate from college. A graduate of the Kamehameha Schools, a private institution that grants preference to Native Hawaiians, Watson went on to acquire a law degree from Harvard University. Watson graduated in 1991 in the same class as Obama, a fact that prompted conspiracy theorists and alt-right media to jump to the unsubstantiated conclusion that the decision was due to collusion between the two. However, the facts speak differently. During his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing in 2013, Watson noted one of his motivations: the late U.S. Army colonel and decorated war veteran Leroy Bass. The African-American high school teacher had grown up under the thumb of segregation in El Paso, Texas. “Many of you, and probably most of you, do not know Colonel Bass, but he was a teacher of mine at the Kamehameha Schools back when I was a sophomore,” said Watson. (Bass walked on in 2003.) “He taught a course called simply ‘The Law.’ He does not know it and probably never did—I never had an opportunity to express my appreciation to him—but he inspired my interest in the law and has as much to do with me sitting here today as anyone.”
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Watson’s first position was at Landels, Ripley & Diamond, a San Francisco law firm. In 1995 he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Northern California district office, ultimately becoming deputy chief of the civil division. In 2000, Watson jumped back into private practice, this time with another San Francisco firm, Farella Braun + Martel LLP. There, his casework included product liability, toxic tort, and environmental cost recovery litigation. Watson also performed pro bono work on cases including human trafficking as well as wage and hour claims on behalf of Mexican nationals in San Francisco.
But home was calling, and in 2007 Watson and his wife, Gloriann, and infant son returned to Honolulu and to public service. During his confirmation hearing, Watson succinctly summed up the move: family.“I looked for a job immediately,” Watson said, referring to his first son’s birth in November 2006, “recognizing that his grandparents on both mother’s and father’s side were in Hawaii, still are in Hawaii, make their homes in Hawaii, and have no intention of leaving Hawaii. And, quite frankly, neither do we.” Watson and his wife went on to have another son.
The justice did not respond to ICMN’s request for an interview. However, others are stepping up to laud his decision on the President’s executive order.
“The decision strikes down Trump’s ban to protect First Amendment rights of Muslims,” said Native rights attorney Walter Echo-Hawk, Pawnee. “Judicial endorsement of this kind of ban, according to the court, would make Muslims feel like ‘outsiders’ and ‘second-class citizens’ living under government ‘hostility to their church and their religion.’ That is laudable, because the defining role of the courts is to vigilantly protect constitutional rights of unpopular minority groups to safeguard our democracy.”
Echo-Hawk, author of In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (Fulcrum Publishers, 2010) and In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America & the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Fulcrum Publishers, 2013) added, “Unfortunately, Native Americans rarely receive such protection; all too often government hostility to indigenous life and culture goes unchecked by the courts. Indeed, Hobby Lobby, a business corporation, has more religious freedom in First Amendment jurisprudence than Native Americans.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-HI, was also complimentary of Watson’s actions after the ruling.
“Hawaiʻi is a place where people with different ideas, backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities feel welcomed and respected,” Gabbard said in a statement. “It’s only right that Hawai’i Attorney General Doug Chin represent those values in working to stop this blanket travel ban from going into effect. This travel ban is bad policy, plain and simple.”
The Associated Press spoke with Keith Lee, corporate counsel for the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center on Oahu’s leeward side (or western coast), on March 15. Lee, who worked with Watson when he was assistant U.S. attorney for Hawaii, said, “He doesn’t have a big ego … if anything, he’s kind of understated.”
One reason why Derrick Watson may be reluctant to speak in public: He’s been receiving death threats. Honolulu station KHNL-TV reported on March 23 that extra U. S. marshals had been detached from the mainland to provide 24-hour protection to the judge.