Richardson was a leading proponent of the rights of native Hawaiians, often relying on ancestral custom rather than Western common law in his decisions:
Chief Justice Richardson, who was half Chinese, three-eighths native Hawaiian and one-eighth Caucasian, presided over the court from 1966 through 1982.He was one of Hawaii's most influential figures, and was also instrumental in establishing a law school -- which is named after him -- at the University of Hawaii. More here: Justice 'gave life to Hawaiian law.' And here: William Richardson dies at 90; former chief justice of Hawaii's Supreme Court.
"His opinions came at a time when native Hawaiians were beginning what is called ‘the Renaissance' - the rebirth of pride in native identity, language and culture," the dean of the law school, Avi Soifer, said. "He helped trigger and embody that renaissance through his opinions and his role as a major leader in Hawaii."
Chief Justice Richardson had been a leading voice for statehood, and was also chairman of Hawaii's Democratic Party and lieutenant governor from 1963 to 1966. In March 1966, Gov. John A. Burns appointed him chief justice.
In perhaps his most famous case, Chief Justice Richardson in essence asked in 1968 why Hawaii should follow Anglo-American common law rather than its own ancient traditions regarding the use of property. The 4-to-1 ruling he wrote incorporated those customs in declaring all beaches in the state open to the public.
Under his leadership, the court also established the water rights of people living downstream from privately owned property that surrounded rivers or streams. It awarded new land created by lava flows to the state, instead of adjacent property owners. And it ruled that native Hawaiians could cross private property to gather traditional cultural resources, like particular plants used by hula dancers as part of their ceremonies.