Photo courtesty Hawaii Senate Majority
Growing up in Japan, Sabrina Shizue McKenna never imagined she would one day be a Hawai‘i Supreme Court justice.
“As a child, I always thought I would be a teacher,” she said. After more consideration, McKenna thought she would become an interpreter, “because Japanese is my first language.”
Sabrina McKenna was born in Tökyö in 1957 to a Caucasian father who was a professor from the Midwest and a Japanese mother, who was eventually naturalized as an American citizen.
“I grew up completely bilingual and bicultural, played with Japanese and American friends, enjoyed Japanese and American food, culture and customs,” she said in an email.
McKenna grew up in a U.S. military environment in Japan, where her father worked. He was a smoker and died of a heart attack when his daughter was only 9 years old, leaving his wife to raise their only child as a single parent.
“I’ll never forget the people who were kind to me and my mother after my father died; I learned then that it’s character and kindness that count, not social or economic status,” she wrote in her email.
At Yokota High School, McKenna enjoyed playing basketball for the school and often played pick-up games with the soldiers. She also played on the military team as a dependent because they did not have enough women in the military to form a team.
McKenna graduated from high school early, and at the age of 16, decided to move almost 4,000 miles away to attend college at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.
“I knew I needed to get away and be on my own, but I knew I wanted to be closer culturally and geographically to my mother, who remained in Japan,” she said. “So I knew Hawai‘i was the place for me. I always loved it here.”
One of the things McKenna loved about Hawai‘i was being able to “step off the plane, walk around and . . . blend in.”
“I’m hapa (mixed race), and I lived in the Japanese community [in Japan], so people would always [do a] double-take at me,” she said. “And it was so nice to come here and walk down the street and not have anyone turn around and look at me. It was great to be able to blend in.”
Although she fit in, McKenna did have trouble adjusting to the new environment, especially the traffic patterns.
“On the first day here, I almost died, because I remember crossing University Avenue. . . . In Japan, they always say, . . . ‘Look right, look left,’ so I looked right as I was crossing, and I heard a screech, and when I went halfway, I looked left, and I heard another screech, and I realized I was looking the wrong way,” she recalled.
She managed to survive her first day and settled into life as a UH student. McKenna decided to try out for the UH women’s basketball team, which was in its first season of play on the Mänoa campus, coached by Patsy Dung.
“I played basketball in high school for DoD (Department of Defense) schools overseas, so I had a basketball background,” McKenna said. “I came here. They hadn’t recruited anybody, so I was basically competing against walk-ons.”
Her experience paid off and in 1974, Sabrina McKenna secured a spot on the first Rainbow Wahine basketball team, even earning a scholarship to play.
“When I walked on and made the team, they had these scholarships, and I’ll never forget Patsy Dung giving me one,” she said. “It was just wonderful because I was a nonresident. And to be able to call my mother in Japan, who’s working so hard to save money for me to go to college . . . to be able to tell her that I got a scholarship, and she didn’t have to worry about paying for my college anymore was one of the most wonderful things.”
McKenna earned her bachelor’s degree in Ja-panese and then decided to apply for law school.
“While I was a basketball player, one of the Wahine volleyball players went to law school . . . and I thought ‘Wow, athletes can go to law school,’” she said. “So I started thinking about law. . . . I thought I was going to be an interpreter, but then I decided I didn’t want to just interpret what other people were saying. So I thought, you know, perhaps law school might be good for me, also.”
McKenna was accepted to law schools on the Mainland, but chose to remain in Hawai‘i and pursue her degree at the William S. Richardson School of Law.
“UH was always my first choice because I knew I wanted to stay here and practice law,” she said. “Because when I came here, the people here were so kind, and I wanted to be able to give back to this community, because it’s the people of the state of Hawai‘i that paid for my college education.”
McKenna, who was editor-in-chief of the school’s law review, received her JD in 1982 with the seventh graduating class of the William S. Richardson School of Law. Soon thereafter, she began doing civil litigation work with the Honolulu law firm of Goodsill Anderson Quinn and Stifel. Her Japanese background proved an asset to the firm and she was often assigned to work with its Japanese clients, one of whom asked her to leave the firm and become their in-house lawyer.
“I left the firm, traveled with the owner around the world, investing in real estate, and then after about three years of that, I decided ‘OK, it’s time to come back to Hawai‘i,’” she said.
Upon returning, McKenna decided to pursue a different type of legal career and applied to become a judge in 1990.
“The first time I applied, I did not make the list for the Judicial Selection Commission, but I was very fortunate to get an assistant professorship at the law school,” she said. “So I was able to come back and start teaching at the law school.
“Two and a half years later, there was another opening, and this time, I did make the list and I was selected, and so, since Nov. 30 of 1993, I’ve been a judge.”
McKenna was a District Court judge from 1993 to 1995, when she was selected for a judgeship on the Circuit Court. At the time of her nomination to the Supreme Court, she was senior judge of the Family Court.
“As a trial judge, you preside over trials, settlement conferences . . . every day, especially in Family Court, the calendars are very, very busy and a lot of people [to] contact,” she said.
In March 2011, Gov. Abercrombie nominated Judge Sabrina McKenna to a 10-year term on the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. Her nomination was confirmed unanimously by the state Senate.
“It’s just the most awesome experience,” she said. “I’m so honored to be able to be in this position.”
The 56-year-old McKenna is only the second woman to be appointed to the state’s highest court — and its first openly gay justice. She said it was important for her to “come out” because of what she learned while a Family Court judge.
“LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth are four times [more] likely to attempt suicide.” And, she added, “LGBT youth that come from families that reject them are eight times as likely to attempt suicide.”
“When I realized that these youth were much more likely to attempt suicide, I decided as an Asian Pacific American, it was important for me to come out and . . . not just for the youth, but also for the parents — for the community to realize that this (sexual identity) might be an aspect of our lives, but we are productive members of this society and we are just like you,” she said.
In addition to being a role model to LGBT youth, McKenna has never forgotten that she was a beneficiary of Title IX and is thus passionate about ensuring equality for women in her profession. Title IX — the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, named for one of its principal authors, the late Hawai‘i Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink — is the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities receiving federal assistance. The law is credited with creating countless opportunities for women in all fields.
“In 1972 when Title IX passed, only 7 percent of all United States law school graduates were women — now it’s like 50 percent,” McKenna noted. “Obviously, if only 7 percent were graduating, you know that the percentage of women attorneys was less than that. . . . Now, the percentage of women attorneys in the United States is 33 percent. That’s about the same percentage of judges.
“We still aren’t at 50 percent, but in the next 10 to 20 years, we’re gonna get there.”
In her free time, McKenna enjoys exercising and watching sports, but she especially enjoys spending time with her family, who has been influential in her life.
“First and foremost would be my parents, ancestors, family, close friends and, of course, my children,” she said in an email. “Although I only knew my maternal grandmother, I heard stories of and could imagine the struggles of my ancestors, who raised their children with love and with hopes for creating better lives for them and who believed in providing their children with good educations.
“I’ve been blessed to have many people be influential to me. . . . I’ll never forget the kindness of my friends’ parents, especially those in Hawai‘i, who treated me as family. I’ve also had wonderful teachers, professors, coaches, professional mentors and friends, too many to name. I’ve been, and continue to be, truly blessed by wonderful family, friends, mentors and supporters, and try to pay it forward.”
Kimberly Clark received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa last month and has returned to her home in Carmel, Ind., to pursue a career in journalism.