Cover of the National Jurist magazine featuring four students including Mahesh Cleveland

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa law student Mahesh Cleveland is one of the 20 top law students of the year in the spring 2018 issue of The National Jurist.

In choosing Cleveland, who has been active in indigenous rights, the magazine editors cited his work in environmental law and sustainable resource management, including twice being a member of the nominating committee for the State Commission on Water Resource Management, as well as his work as a volunteer court reporter for Hawaiʻi’s Environmental Court, among many other activities.

Non-traditional path

Cleveland’s path to the William S. Richardson School of Law was unusual. Formerly a reggae musician and carpenter, Cleveland had to re-examine his life and his future as the economy and jobs dried up during the great recession. He reasoned that law would give him the opportunity to help those unable to help themselves with problems in the community.

“How can I speak for people that basically don’t have a voice, or don’t have a strong voice?” said Cleveland, who is Native Hawaiian and was born in East Maui.

Cleveland earned a bachelor of arts with honors in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus on law and public policy, from UH Mānoa in 2015, at age 39.

Associate Dean Ronette Kawakami said Cleveland lets others get credit for work in which he has been a vital part. “Mahesh is exemplary in his ability to organize and to envision solutions to knotty problems,” said Kawakami, “but then to step back and to let others have the limelight.” She added he is “quite a leader at the law school, people want to follow him.”

Said Law School Dean Avi Soifer, “Mahesh is committed to protecting the state’s fragile environment, and to preserving the culture that nurtured him. There is no question that Mahesh will continue to be a leader regarding many vital matters, and he will do so in his uniquely low-key yet very effective way.”

Finding opportunities

Cleveland, who graduates in May, touts opportunities provided by the law school. He encourages students to read through the “tons” of emails they receive in search of “nuggets.” That is how he found out about the water resource management opportunity.

With water rights being a vital issue in Hawaiʻi, Cleveland has sought to navigate the divide between Western law and Native Hawaiian custom. “I’m from East Maui (Huelo) so I have this natural connection to water issues because I’ve been playing in irrigation ditches my whole life.”

He also was a member of the law school team that helped draft and advocate for Hawaiʻi “motions” protecting Pacific Ocean resources and native rights accepted by the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that met in Honolulu in September 2016.

Despite everything he’s done Cleveland says his children, ages 19, 17 and 8, are “by far the most significant accomplishment in my life.”

National recognition

Cleveland is featured on the The National Jurist magazine’s cover as part of an illustration showing four of the students chosen from law schools across the nation. There are approximately 200 American Bar Association-accredited law schools in the U.S.

Cleveland is the second UH law school student in the last three years to be named in the National Jurist top 20. Katherine Vessels was recognized in 2016.

“Well, it’s wonderful recognition on a national scale,” Soifer said. He added that people in Hawaiʻi tend to be low key and humble about accomplishments, “but this is telling the country that this low key place has exceptional students.”