Sabrina Shizue McKenna, a longtime state judge and former University of Hawaii women’s basketball player who was born in Tokyo and raised by a single mother, was nominated to a 10-year term on the Hawaii Supreme Court yesterday.
In making his first judicial nomination, Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the appointment "the most important decision" in his career.
"This appointment sets the course for the state and its legal direction for the next several years," he said. "I’m completely confident that Judge McKenna’s appointment will be something I’m proud of for the rest of my life."
McKenna, 53, senior judge of Oahu’s Family Court at the Kapolei courthouse and a state judge in district and circuit court for 17 years, said she was "excited and honored" to be nominated to the five-member court.
She has been deemed qualified numerous times by the Judicial Selection Commission for higher court positions and was a finalist for a U.S. District Court lifetime judgeship.
McKenna’s appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee said his initial reaction is that McKenna is "eminently qualified."
"I suspect that the Senate, on balance, would probably be supportive, but it may be premature at this point," he said.
Hee said as far as he knows, McKenna has a "very good reputation" in and out of the court system.
Abercrombie said during the announcement ceremonies, "Judge McKenna comes from a background that truly understands what it is to be part of Hawaii, a part of the social fabric of Hawaii that is in fact unique in all the world."
He noted that she was on the UH basketball team in the 1970s.
McKenna said she never imagined that she would end up nominated to the high court.
"It does take a village, because if it wasn’t for my friends I could have been out on the streets while my mother had to work at nights," she said.
In discussing the uniqueness of Hawaii’s constitution, McKenna said it has provisions relating to native Hawaiians that are "extremely important to recognize," as well as provisions on the environment and civil rights.
McKenna would be the first openly gay member of the Hawaii Supreme Court.
McKenna’s sexual orientation was not brought up during the ceremonies, but she said that all judges bring to the bench their own personal experiences.
"I would like to believe that because of my background and my life experiences, I bring sensitivity to those who may not have been born into a life of privilege, a sensitivity to those whose life circumstances make it difficult for them to conform with all of society’s expectations," she said.
"I try to bring compassion to the court."
She later said she was not only referring to her sexual orientation, but her gender and her upbringing in Japan by her mother after her father died when she was 9.
McKenna said the significance of being the first openly gay member on the court would be that it could give "hope to people who feel that they cannot succeed" because of a variety of reasons, including being gay.
She said if an issue such as civil unions came before the court, she would consult with the Judicial Conduct Commission on whether she would have to withdraw from the case.
McKenna has been on the Judicial Selection Commission lists for associate justice two previous times, for chief judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals twice and for an appeals judge five times.
McKenna was also one of three names submitted by U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka to President Barack Obama, who picked Leslie Kobayashi as Hawaii’s newest U.S. District Court judge.
"She’s a good judge, very competent and very in tune with the public," former chief appeals Judge James Burns said. "She’s a people person. She’s not only for the little guy, but everybody."
Honolulu attorney Paul Alston said McKenna is a "very good judge." "She has demonstrated time and again that she’s not afraid to make tough decisions," he said.
Abercrombie selected McKenna from a list of four to six names from the Judicial Selection Commission. He affirmed that, unlike his predecessors, he will not release the other names.
He said he wants to keep the list confidential to attract the largest pool of applicants for the high court.
Two other associate justices must leave the court during Abercrombie’s term because of the constitutional mandatory retirement age of 70.
Abercrombie, 72, said the mandatory retirement for state jurists is a "very bad idea."
"I will be putting forward something as soon as it’s feasible to try to end that," he said. "That’s ageism."