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From one court to another, Justice Sabrina McKenna helped pave the way for women in law

Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Justice Sabrina McKenna played basketball for the University of Hawaiʻi's first women's team in 1974 as a result of Title IX.
University of Hawaiʻi Athletics, Hawaiʻi State Judiciary
Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Justice Sabrina McKenna played basketball for the University of Hawaiʻi's first women's team in 1974 as a result of Title IX.

Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Justice Sabrina McKenna is being recognized this year for her many achievements, including paving the way for other women in the legal profession.

She's one of five recipients of the 2023 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, presented by the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession.

McKenna is the fourth woman from Hawaiʻi to receive the award after the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, attorney Ellen Godbey Carson, and current U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono.

"It is a tremendous honor and I feel completely humbled, and it's unbelievable. I'm not sure I'm worthy. I do not consider myself worthy to be named along with these people. But I'm very humbled to have received the award," McKenna told HPR.

She lists Mink as one of her personal heroes due to Mink's work with Title IX, expanding opportunities for women and girls in education and athletics.

While studying at the University of Hawaiʻi, McKenna was an early beneficiary of Title IX as a player on the first Rainbow Wahine women's basketball team in 1974. Coach Patsy Dung put her on the roster and awarded her a scholarship.

"Because I received this scholarship, I learned about Title IX, and I started learning about Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink and I just came to really admire her tenacity, her intelligence, her courage to stand up for what is right against strong odds and to be pushed down and pushed aside but just to keep going," said McKenna, who went on to earn her law degree at UH.

She was nominated for this year's award by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which described her as a "trailblazer, a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and a true role model, mentor, and heroine to women, especially in the LGBTQ and underrepresented communities."

Since 1993, she has served as a judge on various state courts. In 2011, then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed her to the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court.

"Without doubt, my children are my joy and pride. Of course, you know, professionally, having been able to serve and to be honored with this position is just amazing. It's not something that I ever envisioned as a young person. I'm humbled every day as I walk into this building."

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 5, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1. This interview was adapted for the web by Sophia McCullough.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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