Sonja McCullen, a Honolulu deputy prosecuting attorney, sailed smoothly through a Senate hearing on her appointment to the Intermediate Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

That’s in contrast to Gov. David Ige’s last pick to the appeals court, Dan Gluck, the director of the state Ethics Commission. He drew fire from critics who complained he lacked trial experience and that Ige should have nominated a woman of color who had more court experience.

Gluck’s appointment reignited debate over the diversity of Hawaii’s courts, and the Senate ultimately rejected his nomination.

McCullen, who is part Native Hawaiian and a former teacher at Waianae High School, will likely avoid those controversies during her appointment process.

Deputy Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Sonja McCullen cleared her first Senate hearing Wednesday. Screenshot

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from McCullen and her supporters. She faced questions over how she’d approach cases as an appellate court judge.

The committee is expected to vote on McCullen’s appointment on Thursday, followed by a vote before the full 25-member Senate on Friday.

If appointed, McCullen would be the first Hawaiian judge on an appellate court in the state in decades.

“That’s overwhelming,” McCullen said.

No one testified against McCullen Wednesday. Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm was among her supporters.

“She’s been one of the real work horses as far as doing so much appellate work for years,” Alm said. “She’s down to earth. She’s smart. She’s compassionate. She’s going to be the last one to toot her own horn.”

The Hawaii State Bar Association also found that McCullen is qualified for the position.

The senators’ questions focused on McCullen’s work at the prosecutor’s office as well as how she would work toward addressing injustices in Hawaii’s court system.

“It’s a systemic problem and it requires a systemic approach,” McCullen said, adding that she is committed to doing what she can “within the bounds of the law.”

To that end, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole asked her what role, if any, the prosecutor’s office might play in the criminal justice system, and if her time in the office might influence how she decides cases.

McCullen said it’s not a prosecutor’s role to “just get convictions or win cases. Our goal is to do what’s right. Do what’s just.”

McCullen, who worked on appellate cases for the prosecutor’s office, said she has argued 20 cases before the Hawaii Supreme Court and numerous cases before the ICA.

She said she has refused to advance certain cases if she felt that prosecutors were wrong in the case. In one example, she conceded a case where a defendant argued that his sentencing was illegal, something the trial prosecutors did not agree with.

Oahu Community Correctional Center razor wire inside jail.
McCullen faced questions from senators over how she plans to address issues like incarceration and systemic injustices in the court system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Sen. Chris Lee asked why Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the jail system. McCullen said she didn’t know but suggested that Hawaiian families may face challenges growing up that others don’t.

Sen. Karl Rhoads focused on federal investigations targeting the prosecutor’s office and the City and County of Honolulu stemming from the conspiracy case involving Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecutor who tried to frame her uncle for stealing her mailbox.

Kealoha was convicted for her role in the corruption case which also involved her husband, former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha. Former Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has been the target of the FBI probe that is continuing.

McCullen said she did not receive a target letter and has not been questioned in connection with any federal investigations involving the city.

McCullen also said Wednesday that she hopes to help dig in to the ICA’s backlog of appeals.

The ICA hears nearly all appeals that come from state trial courts. It has six judges who hear cases through three-judge panels.

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