Hawaii judges, attorneys rock for public-interest advocacy

Nov. 12—Before a roomful of attorneys, Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna, adorned in black and wielding an instrument to command attention, surveyed the gallery before beginning to riff with her colleagues.

Before a roomful of attorneys, Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna, adorned in black and wielding an instrument to command attention, surveyed the gallery before beginning to riff with her colleagues.

No, Hawaii's high court was not in session.

McKenna, on guitar and vocals, joined her bandmates—Intermediate Court of Appeals Associate Judge Keith Hiraoka, Oahu Circuit Judge Gary Chang, contracts professor Richard Chen and Administrative Director of the Courts Rodney Maile, 1st Circuit District Court Judge William Domingo, attorney Chase Livingston and Beck Millan—to play to the crowd Thursday night at Artistry Kakaako as the Judicats, pounding out tunes, not gavels.

They were the third of eight acts at the annual Rock for Justice fundraiser benefiting Advocates for Public Interest Law, a student-run organization at the University of Hawaii's William S. Richardson School of Law.

The popular perception of some legal professionals as sharks in suits trolling for billable hours could not have been farther from the vibe generated by the roughly 350-person-strong "Courthouse Ohana." The group turned out to support the clients who need it most, said attorney and Rock for Justice sponsorship coordinator David Hayakawa.

The crowd included judges, court staff, public defenders, prosecutors, private defense attorneys, legal staff, law students and their friends—all there for a "night of Rock-n-Roll Fellowship."

Held for the first time since 2019, the fundraiser collected sponsorships from private law firms and "suggested donations " of $20 at the door, with law students getting in free. The money will help place students in summer internships working on issues involving access to justice by "promoting advocacy for people marginalized by poverty, language, citizenship, barriers to information, isolation and discrimination."

McKenna, who was appointed to the Hawaii Supreme Court in 2011, sang and played rhythm guitar on a medley that included Queen's "We Will Rock You " and Santana's "Oye Como Va, " to kick off an 11-song set that fueled a raucous crowd the Judicats surely would not permit in class, court or chambers. Hiraoka was on the bass.

"Music has always been an important part of my life, " McKenna said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "I feel privileged to have been able to perform alongside so many talented judges, lawyers, and law students to raise funds for public interest internships for law students, who will go on to provide much needed legal services to our community."

The event raised more than $11, 000, including 100 % of door proceeds, all of which will go to Advocates for Public Interest Law, Hayakawa said. The event was founded in 2017 by a group including Honolulu attorneys Jason Burks and Nam Phan, who were looking for a way to channel the out-of-court talents of Hawaii's legal community.

Burks, who played with the Blokes and Oui Don't Speak French on Thursday night, said a group of musically inclined attorneys came up with the idea while sitting around talking.

"We just had an idea and threw it together. There are a lot of musicians among the attorneys and Judiciary, and we had this idea to put something together for a fundraiser, " said Burks, who plays guitar and sings. "There are ... attorneys that are gigging musicians that play bars and venues around town."

Phan, who practices health care law, said the event also is an opportunity for law students to meet practicing attorneys.

"We provides grants for these students to work in these public-interest firms, " Phan said.

Lane Mullin, a second-year law student, or "2L " as their colleagues call them, benefited from an Advocates for Public Interest Law grant that helped her work over the summer at the Domestic Violence Action Center.

Mullin, 31, who has an interest in family law, helped work on the temporary restraining order calendar of center clients, who were predominantly women with some men, she said. She got to go to court every week, help prepare clients for trial, draft questions for direct and cross-examination, and assist with intake.

"All in all, over a 2-1 /2-month internship, I had about 15 client cases I was working on, " Mullin said.

Catherine Lowenberg, an attorney and event organizer who joined the Judicats on stage for a rendition of the Kinks' "Lola, " said not every law student who signs up to serve the community has the luxury of sticking with that path and often ends up in private firms.

"These grants ... support students who really have that idealism to serve the community, especially the underserved, the voiceless, " she said. "And as it is for students, it's really important to get these summer internships because a lot of times that dictates where you go, and it's usually the firms that pay.

"So for these summer stipends, it's important for students who are really passionate about serving their community. It helps solidify that commitment."