Main Body

Chapter 3: The Legislature – the People’s Problem Solver

sad womanHelping women with breast cancer. That’s what the goal was when Congress (the legislative branch of the federal government) passed a law back in 1990 that covered the cost of detecting breast cancer in certain groups of women who did not have health insurance.  However, some of these women refused the offer of detection, because the bill only covered detection… and not treatment. If these women could not afford to get a mammogram, they certainly weren’t going to be able to afford the out-of-pocket costs for breast cancer treatment. Many of these women would prefer to suspect that maybe they had breast cancer, but they didn’t want to know for sure when they would be helpless to treat it. Therefore, ten years later, Congress passed the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act of 2000 which allowed states to cover the treatment cost for breast cancer through their state Medicaid programs.

Flash forward to Hawaiʻi, where local breast cancer support groups found that some women were still not taking advantage of this free breast cancer detection because they didn’t qualify for Medicaid. For example, if you are not a legal resident, you would not be covered, and even if you were a legal resident, for the first five years of your residency, you cannot be covered by Medicaid.

So they supported introduction of a bill in the 2001 Legislative Session – a bill is a proposed law – to cover the cost of breast cancer treatment for these women and other groups not covered by Medicaid. The House Health and Human Services legislative committees increased the appropriation (an appropriation is money that helps to carry out the substance of the law) from $1 to $229,000. The bill passed the legislature and was signed by the governor and became part of the statutes, which are the written, organized laws of the state. So now all of these women who need treatment after they are screened can receive it.

So what can we learn from this story?

Hawaii Revised Statutes
The Hawaii Revised Statutes

First, the legislature serves as a policy making body for all people, or at least classes of people. In this case, it was low income women who had breast cancer. The legislature hears testimony on bills, which are proposed laws, and can adopted them as permanent laws (statutes). Second, sometimes the law the legislature encts also indicates specific provisions they want to adopt, such as the $229,000 funding amount. These laws are organized by subject and the official copy is bound in a series of thirteen books called the Hawaii Revised Statutes, but most people today find these online at the legislature’s website. We will go over where that website is and how to find the statutes later.

Chapter vocabulary

Keep these questions in mind as you read this chapter

Take notes!

How many state senators are there in Hawaiʻi?
How many state representatives are there in Hawaiʻi?
How many council members are there on the Honolulu County Council?
What is a bill?
What is an ordinance?
What is the statute?
What is one of the drawbacks to researching a Hawaii statute in the hardcopy books?
What is one of the drawbacks to researching a Hawaii statute online?
If you had to choose one method, which method would you personally use to research a statute in Hawaii?

What does the state legislature do?

In addition to formulating the state budget, the primary product of the legislature that most people should be familiar with are the statutes. A statute is an organized body of law that covers a certain topic. The state government has many powers; specifically, all of those that are not exclusively reserved to the federal government. The functions controlled by the state include matters relating to health, safety, and welfare, such as regulating the relationships between people, including marriage, inheritance, contract, personal injury, and criminal laws.

Sometimes these laws, called statutes, provide detailed guidance on how they are to be implemented. Look at this next section, which establishes the standards for police roadblocks to stop drunk (intoxicated) drivers:

HRS section 291E-20

Notice how detailed it is, setting out the maximum time. for a roadblock, making sure that the vehicles are chosen in a reasonably random manner, and ensuring that there is a safe place for vehicles that are pulled over. Some statutes are just this precise!

Other statutes set out broad policy guidelines, without so much detail, such as these two sections on landowner liability:

HRS section 520-1

HRS section 520-3

The first section states that the general intent of the law is to allow more people who own land to let people come onto the property for recreational uses, and to do so, the legislature is going to help prevent these landowners from being held liable if those who come on the property are injured. The second section states some specifics of ways in which the landowner is going to be protected. This is another type of statute, which sets out a general policy and provides some guidance in how it will be implemented.

We will learn more about filling in the details in these broader policy sections when we cover the administrative rules of the executive branch. But for now it’s just enough to see that these statutes cover classes of people. Sometimes they cover all people, such as a murder statute (below), which would apply to anyone who kills another person. Other times they apply to a set of people, such as drivers, as covered in the first example on the guarantees of a safe drunk driving stop, or landowners, as in the second example. What you won’t find in the statutes are laws that are made to cover just one person or just one organization. The statutes are supposed to be applied to categories of people.

Statutes are arranged in logical groups, so that if you find one statute on a topic, you will find the related sections close by. Below is an example of the titles of the criminal laws on murder and assault. You will see that all of these sections appear in a row in the statutes, ranging from the most serious, murder in the first degree, down to the mildest, negligent injury in the second degree. So when you find one of these statutes involving one person injuring another, the rest will be easy for you to locate. If you are interested in finding out more about criminal law in Hawai’i, Kapi’olani Community College offers LAW 176, Criminal Law. focusing on our state criminal law and procedures.

Criminal laws on murder

Where does the legislature get this power?

The Hawaiʻi State Legislature is authorized by article 3 of the Hawaiʻi Constitution. Article III, Section 1 states:


     Section 1.  The legislative power of the State shall be vested in a legislature, which shall consist of two houses, a senate and a house of representatives.  Such power shall extend to all rightful subjects of legislation not inconsistent with this constitution or the Constitution of the United States.[1]

Let’s break this down. The Hawaiʻi State Legislature is composed of two chambers (two parts). One group of people make up the Senate, and the members are called Senators. There are 25 senators in Hawaiʻi. The other group makes up the House of Representatives, and the members are called Representatives. There are 51 representatives in Hawaiʻi. As there are odd numbers of members in both houses, there is no provision that allows the lieutenant governor (the state counterpart of the vice president of the United States) to come in and break a tie.

The legislature’s power is to create any law that is “not inconsistent” with the US or Hawaiʻi constitution[2]. This means that their scope is very broad. As discussed in the chapter on the United States Constitution, one of the clauses recognizes that the states have the power over anything not addressed in the United States Constitution. This means that while the legislature cannot come up with laws that directly thwart either of the constitutions, everything else is within their scope.

Who do legislators represent?

Each legislator is elected from a specific geographical area in Hawaiʻi, and each person has both a state senator and a state representative. Here is an example of the legislative districts in Honolulu as of 2022. The outlines in  red are the House of Representatives districts, and the outlines in blue are the Senate districts. Notice how the Senate districts are approximately twice the size of each house district, because there are fewer senators.

House and Senate districts in Honolulu
House districts outlined in red
Senate districts outlines in blue

As the goal is to have each legislator represent approximately the same number of people, with each representative representing approximately 27,000 people, and each senator representing approximately 55,000 people.[3] while the boundaries of legislative districts roughly track existing neighborhood boundaries, they sometimes spread out or contract to support this equality of representation.

Here’s an example from the 2022 boundaries of House District 31, outlined in blue, labeled with the name of the current representative, Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson. Notice how long and sprawling it is. While it covers Moanalua and Red Hill, it curls around and excludes Salt Lake, which is part of House District 32, current representative Linda Ichiyama, as including it would make the district hold too many people.


House district 31
House district 31 as of 2022

The breaking down the state into these districts is called “reapportionment,” and when it is done to favor one particular party, it is called “gerrymandering.”

Who represents you?

You can find out who your state representative and state senator are at the home page of the legislature’s website[4]. The link to find your legislators used to be on the front page of the legislature’s website, but they have now moved it so that you have to search for it a little bit. Use the image below to click on the home page to see if you can figure out where that information is.

It is worth visiting this link, because the term of a state senator is only four years and that of a representative is only two years. Therefore, the person who represents you can change as often as every two years. Therefore, the person who represents you can change as often as every two years. It is worth getting to know who your state legislators are, because if you ever want a bill introduced, your own legislator would be your natural first choice. State legislators are very responsive to their constituents. The next chapter will cover how an ordinary citizen like you can ask to have a bill introduced to the legislature on your behalf, and how you have a say in the legislative process.

Where can you find the Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes?

Where can you find the legislature’s statutes? The official set of volumes is dark blue and is published by the State of Hawaiʻi and is simply called the Hawaii Revised Statutes, often referred to as the “HRS.” You can find a hard copy of the HRS  in every public library in Hawaiʻi. There is another set of the statutes produced by a private publisher, Michie, in a lighter blue, and it is called the “Hawaii Revised Statutes Annotated.”  The word “annotated” means that they have provided more details after the statute to let you know how a specific statute has been used by the courts, the Department of the Attorney General, and others.

Hawaii Revised Statutes books
The official HRS
The Michie statutes
The Michie HRSA

While the text of the actual statute is identical in both sets, the annotations make Michie stand out. Let’s compare the official HRS section 142–18 to the Michie version:

Sample text from the HRS version
The HRS section

Compare to:


Sample text from the Michie statute
The Michie HRSA 142-18

When you compare these, you will see that the title, the contents, and the legislative history, which is the part that starts with “L 1923,” is identical. However, when it comes to the notes, which include the court decisions that have discussed and interpreted the section, the official version only gives the reader a one line description, and excludes both the name of the case and the year of the case. The Michie version gives you a more detailed description of how the court used the statute, and includes the case name, and the year, so it is easier to find. So if you can find the Michie version, you will get more information out of the supporting materials, but the official version is fine if you are just looking for the text of the statute.

One of the issues that both of these sets have is that some of the statutes are updated every year, but a new hardcopy volume is not published every year. Instead, the publishers usually release a companion paperback volume that is used in addition to the hardcopy. You can see these white supplements in between the volumes in the first picture above. To make sure that you are getting the most complete version of the statute, you need to look at the hardback volume, and then check for any updates to the same section in the white supplemental volume to see if there have been any subsequent changes.

The Hawaii Session Laws
The Hawaii Session Laws

Even after checking the supplement, though, there is approximately half the year when the supplement is out of date because of the new legislative session. The legislative session generally ends in the first week in May, and the next version of the supplement is not published until approximately November. Meanwhile, bills most commonly become effective upon approval, which can be any time from April, if there is no disagreement between the houses, to May, if the bills have to go to the conference committee, which will be explained more next chapter, or even July, if the bills are vetoed by the governor and then overridden by the legislature. So until the supplement is published and distributed in November, these bills, which have become effective, cannot be found in the supplements. They can be found in the Session Laws, which are annual tan paperback volumes that are published a few months after the end of the session (so prior to the supplements), which list all of the Acts (the bills that passed the Legislature and became law) in chronological order – the order in which they became law.  While the session laws are not easy to read through, because they are in order of passage and not in the order in which they are organized within the HRS, there is a chart at the back of each volume that will allow you to see if the section you’re interested in was amended by one of that session’s bills. This can be a little confusing to understand without some visuals, so check out this next video to see how the hardcopy volumes, the softcover supplements, and the session laws work, and how you would combine a session law search with a statutory search.

What about searching online? While there are specialty, expensive legal databases used in law firms, everyone can use the free online version at the legislature’s website. However, while much of the Legislature’s website has been upgraded and made more user-friendly over the years, finding the text of statutes is challenging. While searching the hardcopy books as shown in this video will never be outdated, searching statutes to the legislature’s website can change abruptly, so I am not going to put a long video covering that in this textbook. I will show you the basics, with the understanding that when you go to the legislature’s website, it might be a different process. For example, in the middle of writing this chapter, the legislature changed its search functions, and I had to scrap the video below and create a new one! [note: and once again in June!] So while the following information is not going to be correct forever,  at least as of December 2022, the following video will show you the steps in finding out the sections of the HRS online (3 min).

How often does the law change?

Every year there are two to three thousand bills (proposed laws) introduced in the Hawaiʻi State Legislature. In general, fewer than 10% of them become law.

Senate bills House bills Total bills per year Total Acts per year/
percent of bills passed
2022 1385 1119 2504 TBD
2021 1423 1397 2820 239 (8.5%)
2020 1179 1156 2335 76* (3.2%)
2019 1597 1545 3142 286 (9.1%)
2018 1106 1178 2284 220 (9.6%)
2017 1317 1576 2893 217 (7.5%)

Data from, archives, various years.

*Probable low account anomaly due to COVID.

These statistics cannot be neatly translated into the number of statutes changed each year.  For example, while 8.5% of the bills passed the legislature in 2021, some of the bills don’t amend the statutes at all, such as bills that deal with the budget, while many other bills amend multiple sections of the statutes. To take a random example, the last Act that passed in 2021, Act 239 on sexual assault,[5] amended three separate statutes.  All that you can reasonably take away is that each year there are hundreds of sections of the statutes that are amended, so if you want to do a thorough job of discovering the current language of a law, you have to do all of this precise tracking.

What if you don’t agree with the law and think it should be changed?

See chapter 4 for the bill passage procedure and where you can make a difference!

What happens at the county level?

Each of the four counties has its own legislative body, known as the City Council on Oahu and the County Council in the other three counties. The county of Maui has made a terrific, five-part series of videos on civic engagement, and I’ve included a link to the first one, which is just about five minutes long, which gives you an excellent description of what a county council does. Bravo, Maui County Council, for helping your people to understand what you do. Even if you don’t live in Maui, please watch the video, as it accurately describes what all the city and county councils do.


The city and county councils are authorized by the State Constitution, which says:




Section 1.  The legislature shall create counties, and may create other political subdivisions within the State, and provide for the government thereof.  Each political subdivision shall have and exercise such powers as shall be conferred under general laws. …



Section 2.  Each political subdivision shall have the power to frame and adopt a charter for its own self-government within such limits and under such procedures as may be provided by general law[.][6]

This term “general law” means statutes adopted by the Legislature. These are found in chapter 46 of the HRS, and a lengthy list of general powers that the State gives to the counties are listed in HRS section 46–1.5. These powers include:

    • Regulating the police
    • Setting standards for sanitation, including appointing inspectors
    • Building inspection
    • Collecting and disposing of garbage
    • Providing for animal pounds
    • Removing public nuisances.
    • Maintaining county highways
    • Regulating property rentals  and
    • Maintaining, developing, and improving the water system and the sewer system[7]

If the type of law is not listed in the HRS, then the counties do not have the ability to adopt that type of law.  For example, the counties have the power to establish and collect real property taxes (provided under the State Constitution, not HRS 46-1.5)

For the purposes of the rest of this book, the Honolulu City Council will be used as the exemplar, standing in for all county councils, as it is the most detailed. The section in the Honolulu county charter on the City Council has 24 sections in 13 pages, and the county charters have less detail: Maui has 9 sections in 8 pages, Hawaiʻi County  has 18 sections in seven pages, and Kauai County has 18 sections in 5 pages.  So if you are situated in another county, just mentally substitute “county council” wherever this text refers to “city council,” unless there is a specific reference to Honolulu alone.

How powerful are the councilmembers as compared to senators and representatives?

This is a situation where there’s a big difference between Honolulu and the rest of the counties. The other counties have more council members than they have senators, and more council members than they have representatives. So each member of the House of Representatives represents many more people than each individual council member, and each Senator represents about twice as many people as that. Therefore, to the extent that power means representing more people, potentially receiving more campaign contributions, and being responsible for more constituents, the council members are comparatively weak because they represent fewer people. See the following chart, according to the US Census 2020.

County Population[8] Senators Representatives Councilmembers
Hawaiʻi County 200,629 4 7 9
Kauai County 73,298 1 3 7
Maui County 164,754 3 6 9

So to use Hawaiʻi County as an example, with a population just over 200,000 and only 4 senators, each senator will represent approximately 50,000 people. As there are only 7 representatives, each representative will represent approximately 1/7 of 200,000, or 28,500 people.  However, as there are 9 council members, each council member will represent approximately 1/9 of the 200,000, or only 22,220 people.  In these three counties, each councilmember will always represent fewer people because they have to divide the population up by more districts.

County Population Senators Representatives Councilmembers
Honolulu 1,016,508 17 34 9

In contrast, in Honolulu, there are 17 senators and 34 representatives to be divided among over 1 million residents, leaving each senator representing about 59,000 people, and each representative representing about 29,000 people. But because there are only 9 councilmembers, each councilmember represents well over 112,000 people!

Where can I find the county laws?

While the laws passed by the Hawaiʻi State legislature are called statutes, the laws that are passed by the county councils are called “ordinances.” They have the same function that statutes do in that they set out laws and can require you to follow them or receive a civil fine, or in some cases criminal punishments. Here is an example of a Honolulu ordinance which prohibits people from crossing the street while looking at their cell phones. Notice the escalating sequence of funds for repeated violations.


Honolulu cell phone ordinanace
Revised Ordinances of Honolulu section 15-24.23

Please note that all government websites are subject to change and the following links were current as of February 2022. If they lead you to dead links, you can always find the laws by going to the current county website and searching there.

Links to County Ordinances

Revised Ordinances of Honolulu:

Hawaiʻi County ordinances:

Kauai County ordinances:

Maui County ordinances:

Dragon” drop activity


You should be able to answer all these questions.

How many state senators are there in Hawaiʻi?
How many state representatives are there in Hawaiʻi?
How many council members are there on the Honolulu County Council?
What is a bill?
What is an ordinance?
What is the statute?
What is one of the drawbacks to researching a Hawaii statute in the hardcopy books?
What is one of the drawbacks to researching a Hawaii statute online?
If you had to choose one method, which method would you personally use to research a statute in Hawaii?


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The Hawai'i Legal System Copyright © 2023 by Susan Jaworowski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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