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Hawaii's groundbreaking lesbian judge
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2011-03-02

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Sabrina Shizue McKenna is a pioneer in paradise, with roots in Japan and a pretty good jump shot.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie named lesbian judge McKenna, 53, to the Hawaiian Supreme Court in late-January. She had spent the last 17 years as a family court judge—and she attended the mid-February announcement in the governor's office with her partner of 15 years, Denise Yamashiro, and their three children.

In a press release, Abercrombie said: "This is the most important decision I have made in my career. This appointment sets the course for the state and its legal direction for the next several years. I am completely confident that Judge McKenna's appointment will be something I'm proud of for the rest of my life."

Abercrombie was elected last November and McKenna is his first judicial appointment.

"I'm absolutely humbled and honored," McKenna said in an exclusive interview.

"I remember my mother being so worried when I came out to her that my being gay would not allow me to succeed in life. She lived to see me become a judge, but I wish she were alive today. But I know my parents are watching over me."

McKenna was born and raised in Japan by a single mother after her father's death when she was 9. McKenna graduated from a U.S. DOD School in Tokyo, and then attended the University of Hawaii where she walked on to the women's basketball team. McKenna was one of the first beneficiaries of Title IX when she was offered a basketball scholarship.

She attended the William S. Richardson School of Law in Hawaii, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. McKenna practiced law as a civil litigator for a large firm in Honolulu, and then became general counsel to an international company, and then an assistant professor at the law school before being appointed as a state court trial judge, serving on all levels of the trial courts since 1993.

McKenna will be sworn in to her new role on Thursday, March 3, becoming the third woman and first open member of the LGBT community to serve on the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Under the Hawaii Constitution, justices are appointed to 10-year terms. Justices may apply for retention for additional 10-year terms. The Judicial Selection Commission decides whether a justice will be retained. All judges must retire at age 70.

"Hawaii has a merit-based system, with a judicial selection commission with members appointed by the governor, president of the Senate, speaker of the House, the chief justice, and two attorneys voted in by members of the Hawaii State Bar Association," McKenna said. "No more than four of the nine members of the commission can be attorneys. The commission screens applicants and submits a list of four to six names for appellate judgeships to the governor, who must select from that list. The governor's nominee is subject to State Senate confirmation.

"I was fortunate to be included in many previous lists for appellate judgeships during the last governor's tenure, and was fortunate to be selected by our new governor, Neil Abercrombie."

So when did it first hit you that you had been appointed, or has it even yet?

"It still feels like a dream. I think it will really hit me after I'm sworn in," she said.

"I think hard work, the support of my family and friends, and a positive attitude, has helped me get to this point. If I had given up after making so many lists and not being selected, I would not have had the opportunity to be selected this time.

"It is a tremendous honor to be able to serve on the highest court of our state. As happy as this makes me, the happiest moments of my life are still the moments of my children's births and the joy my family brings to me every day."

McKenna lives in Honolulu with her partner and their three children: a 15-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy. McKenna gave birth to the first two, her partner to the third; all from the same sperm donor from California Cryobank.

"I realize how important it is for people to have role models," McKenna said. "I hope that, in some way, my appointment gives hope to members of the LGBT community, to children of single mothers who haven't grown up in lives of privilege, to people of color, to those who feel marginalized for whatever reason, that anything is possible.

"I'm surprised, yet not surprised, that the fact I'm a member of the LGBT community has received so much local and national attention. It's as several celebrities have suggested on The Oprah Show … if everyone came out at once, people would be surprised to learn how many people are LGBT, and then, maybe, it would stop being such a big thing."

McKenna received unanimous approval of her nomination by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Her qualifications are at such a high level it would be very difficult to imagine anyone voting against her," Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee said after the 5-0 vote.

Still, McKenna's nomination had received 101 pieces of testimony, with only five in opposition. Four of those were opposed to McKenna because she is openly gay.

"Hawaii law protects against sexual orientation discrimination in employment. I was not concerned that the Senators would be influenced by my sexual orientation, and I was honored to receive the Senate's unanimous consent," McKenna said. "At the end of the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I thanked not only my supporters, but [also] those who opposed my nomination, for caring about the judiciary and about the administration of justice. I told my opponents that although we may not be able to agree on all issues, I'm sure we could agree that we are all fortunate to live in a country that honors the freedom of speech. And I meant what I said."

McKenna is one of only four openly LGBT supreme court justices in the U.S.

"I hope our example makes it more comfortable for others to come out," said McKenna, who admitted that she was not aware that there are openly gay justices in Oregon and Colorado until after her nomination. "I'm glad to learn of their existence, and hope that our paths may cross in the future."

A little more on Sabrina Shizue McKenna:

—Little-known fact, skill or trait: "Japanese is my first language, and I enjoy singing Japanese karaoke songs."

—Favorite movie: Sound of Music

—Favorite TV judge: "None, don't watch."

—Favorite TV show: Hawaii Five-0. "By the way, the building they show as Hawaii Five-0 headquarters is actually the Hawaii Supreme Court building, Ali'iolani Hale, 'The House of the Heavenly Chiefs,' originally commissioned in 1872 as a palace for King Kamehameha V, and then served as the Government Office for the Kingdom of Hawaii. It faces I'olani Palace, the palace actually occupied by Hawaiian monarchy."

—Thoughts about the new version of Hawaii Five-0: "I love it! We record it on our DVR every Monday night and watch it on Tuesday evening with the kids."

—Favorite sport: "Although I played high school and college basketball, my favorite sport is now soccer. All three of my children play soccer, and my favorite pastime is watching their games on weekends. I'm a soccer mom, and I drive a van."

—Favorite pro athlete: "Michael Jordan. Go Chicago Bulls!"

—How would you do in a game of H-O-R-S-E against President Obama: His shot still looks pretty good. I'm out of practice in basketball. I played in the University of Hawaii Women's Basketball Alumni Game a couple of weeks ago, and shot an air ball.

—Did college basketball help you for your job as a judge, and how?: College basketball definitely helped me. [It] instilled discipline, dedication, importance of knowing a person's role in an organization. [It] also helped in my career as a lawyer, as I played sports with the men in lawyer's league basketball, volleyball, and softball, and I was able to talk about the weekend games in the lunchroom with the male partners, which I don't think hurt my career down the line. Having played college sports helped give me more confidence going forward in life.

—The quote: "We've come a long way [in the LGBT community], but still have a way to go."


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