11 UH students earn Native Hawaiian law certificate

Published On: May 10 2013 12:23:26 PM HST

Eleven law students and their families will celebrate graduation with a Native Hawaiian Law Certificate, on Mother's Day, from the William S. Richardson School of Law at its annual spring commencement on Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 4:30 p.m. at the Andrews Amphitheatre.

Rochelle Wright will spend her Mother’s Day afternoon at the graduation when her daughter, Teri Mahealani Wright, graduates.

"I am beyond blessed to witness such a major accomplishment in my daughter's life especially on Mother’s Day. 'Proud' is such an understatement of how I feel about her graduating from law school," Rochelle excitedly said.

Prior to enrolling in law school in 2010, Teri Wright, worked as a personal trainer for a year after graduating from California State University.

Ten other students, out of 123 participating in the commencement ceremonies, will graduate with the Native Hawaiian Law Certificate distinction. Before law school, Bianca Isaki was a Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Zachary Dilonno, another certificate recipient, was a teacher at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach for three years. Dilonno’s mother, Lisa Lombardi Dederick, flew nearly 5,000 miles from New Jersey to watch her eldest child graduate on Mother’s Day.

Certificate awardees successfully complete certain courses that range from Native Hawaiian Rights to Administrative Law while pursuing the Native Hawaiian Law Certificate.  The certificate also requires clinical work and a writing component.  This stand-alone certificate has been awarded since 2010. From 2007 through 2009, law students could only specialize in Native Hawaiian Law under the Pacific-Asian Legal Studies certificate.  Fifty students since 2007 have graduated with these Native Hawaiian law distinctions.

Through the Native Hawaiian Rights Clinic, nearly all 11 certificate graduates helped Native Hawaiian families dealing with quiet title and partition actions that threatened ancestral family lands. The clinic helped people, unable to afford an attorney, to better understand the legal process. Faculty and students also helped individuals to more confidently represent themselves in court. Certificate graduate, Kainui Smith from Kailua, spent two summers working on the project and assisted with the development of a legal primer on quiet title and partition action. The clinic was described by several students as among their most memorable courses.

When Maxx Phillips from Hawaii Island was asked why she chose to work towards the certificate, she explained, "I believe our legal system is a tool to achieve restorative justice, and in Hawaii, no community needs this more than the Kanaka Maoli community."

Another law student found relevance in the certificate to a broader community. Nicole Torres from Saipan explained, "I have a strong interest in and passion for indigenous rights" and wanted to "engage in dialogue on legal issues affecting indigenous communities especially in the Pacific region."

Other certificate-earning students are as follows: Caycie Gusman, Kaipo Kaawaloa, Jarrett Keohokalole, Kanoe Puuohau, and Puaonaona Thoene.

After graduation, Gusman will work at the law firm of Kobayashi Sugita & Goda, Kaawaloa will clerk for Judge Glenn Kim, Keohokalole has been awarded a Post Juris Doctor Fellowship with the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, Puuohau will finish working towards her MBA, and Thoene will work at the Carlsmith Ball law firm’s Honolulu office.

"We’re very proud to have played a role in the development of these future lawyers, leaders, and advocates," commented Associate Professor and Ka Huli Ao Director Melody Kapilialoha MacKenzie.  MacKenzie further added, "These students will become lawyers who have had a formal education in classes that include Native Hawaiian law, federal Indian law, and the Legal History of Hawai'i as well as practical experience in helping the community in quiet title actions and on water issues."

Isaki, Phillips, Puuohau, Thoene, and Wright are also graduating with the Environmental Law Certificate. For Keohokalole, graduation is a second milestone this year; he and his wife welcomed their second child two weeks ago. A total of 123 law students representing the full-time day program, the evening program and the LLM program with foreign-trained lawyers will participate in the commencement ceremonies.

Established with federal funding in 2005 at the William S. Richardson School of Law, Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law is an academic center that promotes education, scholarship, community outreach, and collaboration on issues of law, culture, and justice for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific and Indigenous peoples.

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