The newly confirmed associate judge to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, Sonja McCullen, credits her training at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law, as well as her experience teaching in Waiʻanae, for instilling important values for her life, career and new role as a judge.
“My career as a teacher gave me lifetime lessons in communicating and collaborating with colleagues, and understanding the importance of community,” said McCullen.
But it was the UH law school that provided her with the important lesson on the role of law to the broader community, she said, “and how the law reflects our highest principles as a society, which in Hawaiʻi includes our unique history, perspectives and values.”
“Our law school community was about camaraderie, not competition,” continued McCullen. “Without Richardson law school, including the predecessor of the Ulu Lehua Scholars Program that encourages opportunities for non-traditional law students, I would not be here today.”
While the seeds of her legal career began while she was still teaching at Waiʻanae High School, it was the supportive Richardson program for non-traditional students that made her legal future possible.
“I remember seeing a lot about the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and their work to uphold rights to Hawaiian Homelands,” said McCullen. “I was impressed with this calling of using the law to help people, which encouraged me to apply to law school and see where that may lead.”
McCullen taught social studies, Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language at Waiʻanae High School from 1994 to 1999, and also created curricula and instructed classes in Hawaiian culture. She is of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
Before her nomination, McCullen served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in the Appellate Division for a combined 11 years. Previously, she worked as an investigator for the Crime Victim Commission, was a staff attorney for United Public Workers, a judicial education specialist for the State of Hawaiʻi Judiciary, and law clerk for the Honorable Paula A. Nakayama of the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court.
This effort is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning (PDF) and Enhancing Student Success (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.
–By Beverly Creamer