Speaking for the Voiceless

Paul Alston strives to preserve access to justice in Hawaii

Published in 2011 Hawaii Super Lawyers magazine

By Jon Letman on December 12, 2011


Paul Alston, a former president of the Hawaii State Bar Association and current director of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing (AHFI), Hawaii’s fourth-largest law firm, was, at one time, a full-time surfer. As a teenager, he and three friends vowed to move to Hawaii as soon as they graduated from high school in Los Angeles. One by one, his friends abandoned the plan, but Alston, then 17 and determined to get to the Aloha State, persisted.

“I graduated on a Friday and was in the water by Tuesday afternoon,” Alston recalls. 

His mother, though, told him that if he planned to stay in Hawaii more than a few weeks, he had to enroll in college. In those days, admission was more informal and Alston was able to, as he puts it, “talk his way in.” 

Five semesters of undergraduate studies later, Alston enrolled in a program at the University of Southern California’s law school. It was the first step of a career that led to becoming one of the most accomplished business/civil rights/class action trial and appellate lawyers in Hawaii.

In the summer of 1970, the U.S. was at war in Southeast Asia, the nation was reeling from the Kent State shooting and LBJ’s Great Society and the civil rights movement was still fresh in the American consciousness. Alston calls it a “bright time for public interest law”—an age when law students sought to advance the common good.

Alston believed that a legal career should be used to improve the lot of people who otherwise had no voice. “I was just persuaded from the beginning of my legal education that this was something lawyers should aspire to,” he says.

As a young attorney in one of Hawaii’s largest law firms, Alston and three fellow lawyers, in the interest of “achieving legal equality,” jointly drafted a memorandum asking for the firm’s support in pursuing public interest work in addition to their everyday obligations. The firm’s senior partners responded by calling them “impetuous punks.”

So Alston left the firm and took a position with the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii in Waianae, a low-income community on west Oahu where he partnered with social workers and agencies for two and a half years.

Four decades later, Alston is widely recognized for his pro bono work. In 2003, Alston helped create Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ), an advocacy program aimed at low-income, immigrant and other underrepresented communities in Hawaii. Along with his colleagues at AHFI, Alston, 65, has won numerous lawsuits with the program. When LEJ joined the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice in 2011, Alston continued serving as lead counsel in a number of class action suits filed on behalf of Hawaii’s most marginalized groups. 

Alston says the work is not about battling evil. “The reality is, for the most part, people in government aren’t malicious,” he says. “They just take the path of least resistance. Often that means skimping or cutting off delivery of services or benefits to people who are hard to deal with or when it requires more effort.”

When, as Alston puts it, “bureaucrats are just being bureaucrats,” the poor, elderly, children, immigrants and non-English speakers are the ones who suffer most.

That’s what happened at Kuhio Park Terrace, a public housing project in Honolulu’s rough-and-tumble Kalihi district. For years, the two 16-story residential towers had been a blight on the public housing community. There was frequently no hot water, the fire alarm didn’t work, elevators ran sporadically, trash chutes were broken and overflowing and the buildings were infested with vermin. 

Working with Hawaii Appleseed, Alston represented the tenants in a suit against the state of Hawaii, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and other entities in order to force them to meet the needs of tenants as required by the law. “You have to clean this up,” he told the state health department. “There are minimum standards of habitability and you’re not meeting them.”

After a three-year battle, the case was settled and the state funded a full renovation and improvement in compliance with ADA requirements and subject to regular inspection.

The Appleseed Center’s executive director, Victor Geminiani, says of Alston: “Paul tackles the powers that be on very political cases that most people wouldn’t ever consider because of the impact on their personal life or, more importantly, their firms. But Paul has no fear of the political or personal consequences of representing controversial cases.” 

Geminiani says Alston is “an institution in the state” who is respected for his commitment. “People think more highly of him than if he were doing [these cases] once every five or ten years,” Geminiani says. “Paul’s done them consistently throughout his career.”

Describing another recent suit fought with the Appleseed Center, Alston says, “Just last week we got an injunction requiring the state of Hawaii to improve the processing of food stamps.” For years, he says, the state has failed to process applications fast enough to comply with federal law, leaving food stamp recipients without the assistance for as long as four weeks. Why the delay in processing? Staffing shortages, budget restrictions or sometimes it was just easier to move slowly, says Alston.

“Someone needs to stand up and say ‘Stop. You really have to do this. This is what the law requires,’” Alston says.

In another case, he represented patients whose mental health services were slashed from as much as 30 hours a month to just three. These cuts, initiated by the Department of Health and Human Services in response to budget limitations, not only cause personal turmoil for the patients, but can have unexpected impacts on society, Alston says.

“The director of Health and Human Services just decided ‘I’ve got to cut my budget and this is how I’m going to do it—bang, you’re done. No more benefits,’” he says.

Alston and the Appleseed Center responded by bringing a lawsuit that resulted in a stipulated agreement that the state had acted in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act that protects required services. Ultimately, services were restored to hundreds of people dependant on access to mental services “just to get through the day.”

One of the most high-profile cases taken on by Alston and company was on behalf of some 8,000 Micronesians, Marshall Islanders and Palauans who, under the Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement, reside legally in the United States but are not citizens. These immigrants, including many who were receiving chemotherapy and dialysis treatment and were legally covered by the state’s Medicaid plan, suddenly found themselves facing the threat of being cut off from medical care, doctor visits and prescription medication when the state announced plans to severely restrict health coverage. 

Alston and his colleagues challenged the state on the grounds that the elimination of critical health care and the manner of notification (notices were distributed in English only with just two weeks’ notice) violated the recipients’ due process and equal protection rights.

A Federal District Court Judge twice ruled in favor of Alston’s clients and ordered the restoration of medical services worth more than $20 million per year. 

What makes Alston so successful? Attorney David Reber, president of the Appleseed Center, says: “The thing that makes him extraordinary is he has been committed to providing legal services to people who can’t afford them throughout his career as a core value.”

Reber adds that prevailing in class action and injunction cases involves a lot of time, money and effort, but doing so can have a much larger impact than an individual case and can even result in systemic changes.

The impact on individual people can be powerful as well. In many of his cases, Alston says, his clients never imagined someone would come forward to legally represent them. “There are a lot of tears and hugs that come in lieu of fees and getting the hugs is always wonderful. That makes you proud to be a lawyer,” he says.

And, just as when he wrote that memorandum as a rookie lawyer, Alston still thinks firms should do more to achieve legal equality. “After the [economic] crash in 2008, firms across the country laid off lawyers,” he says. “They didn’t need to do that. They could have repurposed those lawyers and had them do this kind of [pro bono] work. It would have been good for the young lawyers, good for the firms and good for the community.”

Attorneys at law firms unfamiliar with public service work might worry that they’re not equipped to do it well. Alston disagrees. “It’s really not that different,” he says. “It’s not that hard. Just jump in and do it.” 

Paul Alston’s 1970 Pro Bono Pitch

Date: July 30, 1970
Memo to: All Partners and Associates
From: Law Clerks
Re: The Firm’s Commitment to the Community

During the past weeks, we have been concerned about the extent to which this firm is involved in providing legal services to the poor and lower-middle class segments of the community. Our interest is not with efforts which only sublimely publicize the firm, but with actions which fulfill our obligations, as attorneys, to serve all segments of the community.

At this date we do not seek more “release time” or any new pecuniary commitment; our effort will be in addition to the time we owe to the firm. We seek only a formal declaration of the firm’s support for our planned activities which are designed to fulfill that professional obligation. It is by now clear that only the private bar can provide the talent and resources necessary to achieve legal equality. Lending the prestige of the firm to the promotion of that cause will serve three purposes. It will add weight to our individual efforts; add credence to lawyers’ claims that all citizens are entitled to competent legal assistance; and bring much credit to the firm, and its members, for their role in leading the Hawaii bar towards a program which provides services to those in need and, perhaps, averts social crises such as have arisen on the mainland.

What we suggest is not a radical plot; similar commitments have been made by many leading law firms. If this firm makes such a commitment it will, we think, be applauded for moving with—not trailing a year behind—mainland firms which are already late in responding to sociolegal problems plaguing our society.

We recognize that the firms represented are much richer and larger than this firm. For this firm to make such an extensive commitment would, obviously, be impractical. We feel, however, that the small commitment we seek is both necessary and highly meritorious.

Thank you,
Law Clerks

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