HONOLULU — The Hawaii Senate on Friday voted to approve Gov. David Ige’s nomination of Native Hawaiian attorney Sonja McCullen to serve on the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
Senators voted 24-0, with one senator excused, to confirm MuCullen, who currently serves as a deputy prosecutor in Honolulu.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel found McCullen to be well-qualified for the position.
“All the testimony submitted was in support of Ms. McCullen’s appointment to the Intermediate Court of Appeals and testifiers commended her knowledge of the law and industrious work ethic,” Rhoads said before the vote.
McCullen has served as a clerk for a Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Paula Nakayama and as an attorney for United Public Workers.
She taught Hawaiian studies and language for five years at Waianae High School during what she called her “first career” as a teacher.
McCullen emerged as Ige’s choice after the Senate rejected his initial appointee, Daniel Gluck, the executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission and former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
Gluck’s supporters commended his keen legal mind, his dedication to social justice and his fairness. But critics complained it was inappropriate for Ige to appoint Gluck, a white man, when it has been decades since any Native Hawaiians had been appointed to either the state appeals or supreme courts.
Testifiers said lived experience matters for judges, and it was vital for the state’s top courts to have people with Hawaiian knowledge and background, pointing to former Chief Justice William Richardson as an example.
With Richardson at the helm from 1966 to 1982, the Hawaii Supreme Court applied Hawaiian concepts — like the idea that certain resources like water could not be privately owned — to the law. It declared that new land created by lava belongs to the state, not those who own adjacent property.
Richardson’s court has also been credited with helping expand Native Hawaiian rights and giving the public more access to beaches.
Under Hawaii law, the governor selects appointees to the appeals and supreme courts from a list provided by the state Judicial Selection Commission.