Thank You, Simeon Acoba, Jr. For Your Exemplary Work and For Being A Role Model

Simeon R. Acoba, Jr. is one of those rare iconic individuals in our Filipino community who has influenced generations to enter law.

Acoba is to the legal profession as what former Ben Cayetano was to Hawaii politics. Of course, both are very different individuals, but as a legal trailblazer, Acoba has reached the pinnacle in his field and is widely known even outside of the legal world.

Acoba has achieved just about every legal experience and title during his long, illustrious career. As an attorney he has held top positions in both public law and the private sector, and in academia. He’s run the full gamut taking on cases and argued in criminal, civil and family court at both the state and federal courts.

In 2000, Acoba became the third Filipino American in the history since statehood to serve in Hawaii’s State Supreme Court. Before him, Benjamin Menor and Mario Ramil were associate justices in the highest court in the state. Since Acoba, there hasn’t been a Filipino on that court. Supreme Court judges are nominated by a Hawaii governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

Hawaii Supreme Court judges are appointed to serve 10 years. Acoba (nominated by former Gov. Ben Cayetano) served a second ten-year term (retained by the Judicial Selection Commission) that recently concluded in May 2020. But his official retirement date from the High Court is in 2014.

Prior to Acoba’s tenure at Hawaii’s Supreme Court, he served as a judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals of Hawaii.

Since his official retirement from the Supreme Court, he’s taken on various positions including going back to his alma mater to serve two-terms as a member of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. His second terms expires in 2022.

He’s also a lecturer at the UH William S. Richardson School of law and is giving back to the community with his new scholarship (preference to public high school graduates) for the university’s law school.

Acoba received his undergraduate from UH Manoa, but got his juris doctorate from Northwestern University School of Law.

He also has the high distinction of being former president of the Hawaii State Bar Association.

Perhaps what’s most inspiring of Acoba is his ascent from humble beginnings. His parents were immigrants. He grew up in Kalihi and went to the public schools in that district – Dole Intermediate and Farrington High School.

Acoba made the best of his public school education as a good student and active leader in student government. In his senior year, he was class president.

That same formula of success would be replicated at UH-Manoa — achieve good grades and be active in student government. While at UH, he served as vice president of the Associated Students of University of Hawaii (ASUH).

While Filipinos have made tremendous progress in many areas (including in the legal profession), at the time Acoba was a student it was rare for Filipinos to choose a career in law. In fact, just being a student at UH-Manoa was a special accomplishment for Filipinos during the 1960s.

The professional wave of Filipino immigrants came in the 1970s. Their children would show up at UH-Manoa in greater numbers from the 1980s and onward. But until today, Filipinos are still underrepresented at UH-Manoa based on our community’s population.

In the law profession, while their numbers are climbing, again, Filipinos are still underrepresented. When it comes to Hawaii judges, the numbers are even more dismal. In 2019, only 8 of the 81 state judges were of Filipino ancestry. It’s estimated that Filipino lawyers in the last generation comprised under 5 percent.

Clearly, Filipinos as a community, can do better and should be encouraged to become lawyers when possible, considering how legal issues carry tremendous weight in society and influence so many other areas of Hawaii life from immigration, family matters, civil rights, public policy and business-corporate dealings.

It’s also important that our community can find an attorney whom they can relate to and trust with their most personal and life-changing legal affairs. And sometimes, ethnicity can be that bridge.

A big mahalo to Simeon R. Acoba, Jr. for being an exemplary role model and trailblazer for our community and youth. Your success shows how hard work and perseverance can lead to great accomplishments. Based off comments from your colleagues while as a judge, what’s also admirable is you’ve been fair and compassionate, along the way.

Thank you also for giving back to Hawaii’s community with your scholarship, mentoring of law students and new attorneys, and coordinating efforts that help to make legal services more affordable to the underprivileged.

It’s said that while you were a student in the 1960s you were inspired by civil rights leaders and a need for greater racial justice and equality. Your body of work and life story speak volumes toward that ongoing struggle. That perhaps, is at least, one Simeon Acoba, Jr. legacy.

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