Newly Confirmed Associate Judge Sonja McCullen ‘02 Credits Richardson Law for Important Life Lessons

Sonja McCullen ’02, the newly confirmed Associate Judge to the Intermediate Court of Appeals, credited her training at the William S. Richardson School of Law, as well as her experience teaching in Wai‘anae, for instillling important values for her life, her career, and now her 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 in an email.

But it was Richardson 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 Hawai‘i 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 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 Wai`anae 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 Wai‘anae High 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. Her experience clerking, she said, was especially influential in inspiring her passion for appellate work.

McCullen was nominated by Governor David Ige after the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the State Senate rejected his first nominee. Her appointment was confirmed by the Senate on August 27. She fills the vacancy left by the retirement last October of Associate Judge Derrick H.M. Chan.

She earned a B.A. in Liberal and Hawaiian studies from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, as well as a professional diploma in secondary education. She was among six nominees for the Intermediate Court of Appeals on a list submitted to Governor Ige by the state Judicial Selection Commission.

McCullen is married to Isaac Moriwake ’98; they have a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter.