Chad Blair: Want To Be A Judge In Hawaii? Go To Law School At UH - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


The Hawaii Senate’s rejection of Dan Gluck to serve on the Intermediate Court of Appeals shined an uncomfortable light on the fact that fewer than half of Hawaii judges are women.

It also raised concerns about lack of ethnic diversity on the bench and in the legal profession in general.

There was little public discussion of another distinction about our judicial nominees and judges: A good many of them are graduates of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s William S. Richardson School of Law.

Indeed, of the list of six ICA nominees sent by the Judicial Selection Commission to Gov. David Ige in June, five were Richardson graduates.

Last week, Ige nominated one of those graduates, Honolulu Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sonja McCullen, to fill the vacant ICA position. If she is confirmed by the Senate, she will be one of three Richardson alumni sitting on the six-member ICA.

UH Manoa William Richardson School of Law.
The William S. Richardson School of Law, shown above and at top, is the only law school in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

There are also Richardson grads serving on the state’s high court, the circuit courts and the district courts. It illustrates the outsize influence of Hawaii’s only law school, an institution that also graduates a lot of future politicians.

While it is common for law schools in many states to serve as breeding grounds for newly branded lawyers — to attract students from local communities, to help them find clerkships, to make other connections within the legal community and to build their own networks — Hawaii’s geographical location, small population and unique history make the Richardson school an especially influential institution.

‘A National Phenomenon’

The Hawaii State Bar Association has just 5,539 attorneys in the state, the bulk of them on crowded Oahu, an island with a population exceeding 1 million.

Of HSBA’s 8,130 total members, approximately 4,895 are classified as “active” attorneys, which includes serving in government or as judges. Another 3,235 are inactive, classified as voluntary, pro bono or per diem lawyers.

The state’s legal profession is concentrated in Honolulu. More than a dozen law firms have offices downtown or close by, including the three largest in the state: Cades Schutte, Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel and Carlsmith Ball, all with Bishop Street addresses. That’s where the fifth-largest firm, Dentons — formerly Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing — is also located. The fourth-largest, McCorriston Miller Mukai Mackinnon, is not far away.

I didn’t look up the juris doctor credentials of all of the firms’ attorneys, nor that of all the law clerks, nor that of all the state’s per diem judges. But looking just at the courts, it’s clear that there are a lot of Richardson graduates serving as judges, much more so than graduates from other schools, including West Coast law schools like UCLA, UC Hastings, Lewis & Clark and the University of Washington.

Governor David Ige walks in with Judge Todd Eddins for press conference announcing Ige’s nomination to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Governor David Ige with Judge Todd Eddins at a press conference announcing Eddins’ nomination to the Hawaii Supreme Court. Like many judges and justices in Hawaii, he is a UH law school graduate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That’s typical, said Benes Aldana, president of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada.

“It’s a national phenomenon that goes with law schools — the tendency to draw from their local communities,” he said. “If you want to be a judge in your state, you have to build your network, get to know your politicians, serve on local organizations, get the attention of the governor. It’s all about getting to know people locally.”

Aldana, the former chief trial judge of the United States Coast Guard, said there are states like Nevada where there are not that many local graduates on the bench. But that’s due in no small part to the fact that the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas has only been around since 1998.

Instead, said Benes, Nevada tends to draw attorneys from schools like Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington.

“There are exceptions, like Yale or Harvard, where they draw applicants from all over the country who are not necessarily thinking they are going to practice law in Connecticut or Massachusetts,” he said.

Of course, graduates of those schools often have their pick of employment.

UH Far From The Top

But not all of them. Gluck is a graduate of Harvard Law School, the same Ivy League school that produced three of the seven U.S. Supreme Court justices appointed in this century. Another three graduated from Yale Law School.

Amy Coney Barrett, now an associate justice on the Supreme Court, is an alumna of University of Notre Dame Law School in Indiana — an outlier. Harvard leads the pack by far in terms of total Supreme Court justices, with Yale second and Columbia Law School third.

There are no Ivy League law school graduates on the Hawaii Supreme Court. But, of the five justices, two are Richardson alumni — Sabrina McKenna and Todd Eddins. When Ige appointed Eddins in 2020, he was one of two Richardson graduates on the list of four nominees recommended by the Judicial Selection Commission.

In February 2020, the Judicial Selection Commission sent the names of four nominees to Ige to fill a judicial vacancy in the Third Circuit Court on the Big Island. Three were Richardson graduates, including Peter Kubota, who Ige ultimately chose for the job.

While the governor makes appointments to the Hawaii Supreme Court, the ICA and circuit courts, the Hawaii chief justice appoints district court judges. The Richardson pattern can be seen in those courts too.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald speaks at the legislature.
Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald (who went to law school at the University of Chicago) addressing the Legislature in 2019. The “CJ” and the governor have the authority to appoint judges. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Over the past two years, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald received the names of dozens of district court nominees from the Judicial Selection Commission.

The eight nominees for Oahu’s Family Court included five Richardson grads. Of the six nominees for Hawaii island’s Family Court, five were UH law school grads. And of the eight nominees for vacancies on Maui’s Family Court, four got their J.D.s in Manoa.

Not every Richardson grad is guaranteed a judgeship, of course. Of the four vacancies noted above, Recktenwald selected just one UH grad to fill a judgeship. And it is important to note that there is a lot of overlap in judicial applications, with some people applying for more than one position and at more than one time.

Not every court is dominated by Richardson grads, either. Of the 20 judges currently serving on Oahu’s First Circuit (there are three vacancies), five are Richardson graduates, but there are also four who went to Hastings and two who went to Stanford.

Still, Richardson is well represented in the Hawaii judiciary.

No ‘Harvard Of The Pacific’

The top five law schools in the nation, according the 2022 report from U.S. News and World report, are Yale, Stanford, Harvard and — tied for fourth — Columbia and the University of Chicago.

Hawaii is ranked No. 98, tied with the University of Buffalo SUNY, the University of Louisville (Brandeis) and the University of Mississippi. That’s out of a total of 193 ranked schools, so that puts UH smack in the middle.

With average tuition for full-time students listing at $23,114 (and $46,583 for full-time out of state students), that’s a bargain compared to the $68,117 tuition for Yale.

UH also has just 268 students, a much more intimate environment than Harvard, with 1,715 enrolled.

John Waihee, the only governor of Hawaiian ancestry and a proud member of Richardson’s first graduating class in 1976, says cost and location were major reasons the school was established in the first place. If people in Hawaii wanted to be a lawyer, they had to go to the mainland, and tuition usually wasn’t cheap.

Asked if he is at all concerned that there are perhaps too many UH law school grads applying and getting judgeships, Waihee replied, “Isn’t that wonderful!”

Governor George Ariyoshi Jean Governor John Waihee listen to Speaker Saiki on the opening day of the 2019 legislature.
Former Gov. George Ariyoshi, his wife, Jean, and former Governor John Waihee and his wife, Lynne, on the opening day of the 2019 Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

He continued: “The dream of William S. Richardson was precisely that this would happen. It was to make law school accessible. And it has fulfilled its mission to a point where a certain percentage of law students now come here from the mainland. I think the whole thing has sort of balanced out.”

The law school’s eponymous Richardson — who earned his law degree at the University of Cincinnati — was of Native Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian ancestry. Prior to serving as chief justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court from 1966 to 1982, Richardson was a lieutenant governor and a onetime chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. He later served as a trustee of what is now called Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate.

Waihee, who frequently speaks to classes of new law school students, said he tells prospective applicants that the classes on Hawaii laws and tradition are a good reason to attend UH. A second reason is that law firms will hire clerks from UH. He pointed to Sonja McCullen, who clerked for Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Paula Nakayama.

Waihee also praises his alma mater for its commitment to public service and the state of Hawaii.

Not everyone has such a glowing view of Richardson, including some of its graduates who spoke to me on the guarantee that they would remain anonymous. (Hey, it’s a small town, you know?)

Several said Richardson is hardly a “Harvard of the Pacific,” its student body varies wildly in caliber, there is a level of insularity bordering on the incestuous, and that a better mix of background and training on our courts could improve them.

Nadine Ando, the chair of the Judicial Selection Commission and a Richardson graduate (1982), defends both the school and the panel’s work.

She said that the commission doesn’t focus on where a judicial applicant went to school.

The late Hawaii State Supreme Court Chief Justice William S. Richardson in 2015. Hawaii Justice Foundation

“We don’t keep statistical data about which law schools our applicants come from,” she said. “We look at each individual application on its merits. It really is not an issue that has ever come up in any of our consideration of applicants. It’s just not a factor one way or the other.”

Instead, said Ando, the commission looks to the individual qualifications of the applicants, “mostly their professional experience and background.”

As for UH, Ando has fond memories of attending law school classes that were then held in portable structures in the UH quarry area, which at the time was the center of noisy construction.

She said that the school has produced what she called a “laundry list” of prominent members in the community, at the bar and on the bench, including her classmate Justice McKenna.

“You will find graduates of the school in every leadership sector,” she said.

Another commissioner, attorney Jeff Portnoy of Cades Schutte, said he could not speak for the commission, as deliberations are confidential.

“But I just think it’s not a surprise with the number of lawyers coming out of Richardson, particularly over the past three decades, that statistically you are going to have a disproportionate number of Richardson law school graduates who are going to apply to become judges,” he said.

But Portnoy also expressed disappointment in both the number and overall quality of applicants in recent months.

“There are some outstanding candidates, but I think the profession, the bar association, needs to do a better job of seeking out highly qualified candidates for judges,” he said. “I think a better overall effort needs to be made by all of us to encourage people to put their names in.”

He added, on a “completely personal note,” that “what occurred to our last nominee is certainly not helpful in obtaining the best-qualified applicants.”


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Hawaii is probably the only place where having your law degree from UH is not a handicap in a lawyer's career. Having a local law school that gets amazing support from the whole local law community creates opportunities that many of us could otherwise never pursue. There should be a great deal of pride in our law school, not cherry-picked data and "anonymous" statements used to discredit it or its graduates. How many of the lawyers in Hawaii graduated from WSRSL? Without that data, the rest of the data presented here has no real context.There may be a preference for local law school grads. It's a lot like how nobody is asking about your college when they say, "where you grad?"

Jay · 3 months ago

We lost out on a good one.  Dan Gluck would have been a wonderful addition to the ICA.  Whatever happened to the idea of the best person for the job?

Hilobaymoon · 3 months ago

It is tantamount to legal inbreeding leading to genetically deformed justice.  That's one of the reasons why Northern attorneys had to be brought in to try Southern civil rights cases.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 3 months ago

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