Atty. Michelle D. Acosta was selected to receive the Hawaii Women’s Legal Foundation’s 2017 Rhoda Lewis Award. The Foundation has been bestowing this prestigious award on women lawyers who have dedicated their legal career to public service. The award is named after the first female Hawaii State Supreme Court Justice, Rhoda V. Lewis.
Acosta has been active in public service for decades from her young adulthood as a member of the Honolulu Filipino Junior Chamber of Commerce up to today as executive director of the Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii. She also serves as commissioner on the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission.
The following is a Q&A Interview with Acosta. It has been edited for space and clarity.
HFC: What does it mean to be named the 2017 Rhoda Lewis Award recipient?
ACOSTA: To join the list of women awardees who have accomplished and contributed much to the practice of law as well as to the public good came as a great surprise and an honor. To be selected to receive an award in Justice Lewis’ name and to be included in the fine company of previous awardees is truly inspiring. While I took home the award and got to take the pictures and received the accolades, I think of this as an opportunity to again celebrate the many accomplishments of women in the legal field, the women who balance family and career.
Justice Lewis paved the way for many women in the legal field when she became only the second woman in the U.S. to be appointed to a State Supreme Court.
These types of awards go to show the diverse contributions women have in our community and society, that we are active and equal contributors.
I am very lucky to have been surrounded by men and women who have encouraged me to never let the world roll over me. From family members to teachers and mentors who have all given me a step stool to look above and beyond the fences and given me the tools to build my own ladders. I am thankful to the Women’s Legal Foundation for giving an opportunity to take a quick break and reflect on the great support that we as women in the public sector have.
HFC: What are some of the public interest work you do that helped to garner this prestigious award?
ACOSTA: While I’ve been involved in public service for quite a while, I believe that the Foundation had really focused in on Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii’s mission of serving the Hawaii residents who struggle financially and socially to access legal assistance. The organization has been the leading formal pro bono program for Hawaii attorneys for over 36 years, but like many non-profits it has undergone struggles to maintain the levels of services needed by the community due to funding limitations. These challenges are a constant reality, yet despite that, Volunteer Legal has never wavered from its vision of equal access to justice.
When I came on board as executive director, the organization was in the process of rebuilding after the recession. The last few years have really been focused on restoring services and strengthening the organization. Volunteer Legal has been an important resource for our community for many years and thousands of people rely on its services each year. In my current work at Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, we mobilize attorneys to perform volunteer work by providing free legal services to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it.
Many of the issues that surround poverty have law based solutions. For example, a single parent struggling to pay rent may find relief by enforcing a child support order, or a homeless veteran who needs assistance appealing a disability claim to access federal benefits for health and housing. Legal solutions may also alleviate costly state resources. For example, a child whose parents are either incarcerated or homeless may be placed with a family member. By helping that family member obtain legal guardianship, the child will be either taken out of or avoid the foster care system.
I am proud to be part of a team at Volunteer Legal that is dedicated to making sure that these services are available to those who are need of them. Our work and commitment to serving our community is what I believe is really being honored by the Foundation, and we are most thankful that our work is being recognized as valuable and worthwhile.
HFC: Give one moving example how you’ve made a difference in someone’s life whom you’ve helped in your legal work.
ACOSTA: When I worked as a staff attorney with the Domestic Violence Action Center, I had the privilege of representing domestic violence survivors. Some of my clients were married Filipino women who were first generation immigrants; petitioned by their spouses from the Philippines. My job was to help them obtain restraining orders, and represent them in divorces and child custody cases.
I remember a particular client, who I will call “Anita” and who had been physically abused by her spouse on multiple occasions. During one incident, her husband nearly killed her. She was saved by her adult child who intervened. This incident went unreported and no arrest ever made. In fact, Anita never called the police nor reported any of the abuses.
Anita, was 60 years old and had been married to her husband for over 30 years. She immigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines some 20 years ago to join her husband. They had 3 children together. Anita had been a housewife for most of the marriage, but in the last few years had started working as a cashier at a convenience store. Her husband forced her to buy her own food and clothes. She had no access to the household income or as she would refer to it as her “husband’s money.” Anita was simply being “allowed” to live in their own home.
As I sat with Anita at our very first consultation, it was clear that she was not meeting with me because she wanted to. She was there because her husband had been arrested and convicted of assaulting her during a party at their house. Subsequently, he kicked Anita out and filed for a divorce.
As I explained the divorce process and her rights under the law, Anita was shocked that she had equitable rights to a portion of what she referred to as “her husband’s” assets. Anita shared with me that she was indebted to her husband for bringing her to America. “Utang na loob,” as she would say. As for the abuse, Anita stated that she probably deserved it for not being a good enough wife.
Anita’s divorce was headed for trial despite attempts to settle the case with her husband. I knew that the process was painful and brought Anita a sense of shame. Each time we encountered her husband in court, I could see her crumpling up like a piece of paper ready to be thrown away. I would often have to remind her that the laws are intended to ensure equity between the parties. I would also remind her that she helped build their marital assets by raising their children, maintaining the household, supporting her husband so he could work and advance in his career. Their marriage was very much like a business partnership, with each partner having important and valuable roles.
It wasn’t until our last hearing and prior to trial that Anita suddenly exhibited for lack of a better word, moxie. The judge had made a limited ruling in Anita’s favor. When the judge asked if there was anything further from the attorneys, Anita stood and addressed the judge. Tears filled her eyes but her voice was strong. She felt that she was being seen, she felt heard, she felt vindicated. While it wasn’t the proper moment for Anita to address the court in that way, it was a moment she needed. We settled the case soon after that.