The Life and Times of Simeon Acoba: Retired State Supreme Court Justice and Current UH Regent
by Dennis Galolo
Widespread violence. Political upheaval. Racism. Massive street protests. Economic hardships. And a nation deeply divided. That in a nutshell was America in the waning months of the Trump administration.
Life was much the same during the 1960s, particularly the latter part of the decade. This turbulent period saw political assassinations and nationwide pro tests against the treatment of Blacks and minorities—not to mention an unpopular war in Vietnam that added to the social upheaval of the time.
Hawaii experienced its share of protests, particularly at the University of Hawaii, but for most local residents, the events captured by television news cameras seemed a million miles away. Nevertheless, the 1960s forever changed the nation and influenced the youth of that generation, including a young Filipino from Kalihi named Simeon R. Acoba, Jr.
The son of immigrant parents who grew up on sugar plantations in Waialua and Kauai, Acoba lived on Kalihi Street in lower Kalihi Valley with families from different ethnic backgrounds. As a youngster during the 1950s, Acoba attended Dole Intermediate and played as an outfielder and pitcher for the Puuhale Pirates, a Police Activities League (PAL) youth baseball team, with teammate and childhood friend Rodney Mukai.
“We were typical teenagers who played baseball and were active members in a YMCA club called the Gents,” Mukai says.
Sports was a good way to meet girls, so teenage males typically joined church sports leagues but for Acoba, church and related activities were more than just a passing fancy. He attended Aldersgate United Methodist Church at the corner of Liliha and Vineyard which has long been a supportive home and community for many Filipino families.
“The church was a large part of our family upbringing during my youth,” he says. “Sunday school and services were a regular part of our weekends and faith was very important to my parents. I believe the church helped to form some of the core of my moral beliefs.”
The Farrington Way
Acoba excelled at Governor Wallace Rider Farrington High School. Mukai described him as a student who was “well-read, smart and a good writer.”
He served as president of the senior class which had well over 900 students. Despite the large size, Acoba says everyone knew each other and got along. Athletic teams excelled, the band was known for its public performances, the school newspaper was topnotch and student government was active. Even the theatre club thrived, thanks to the new auditorium on campus.
“It was a vibrant campus with a great deal of spirit and pride,” Acoba says. “We strived to follow ‘the Farrington Way’– taking pride in yourself and in your community and doing what was right.”
Acoba says today’s students are much more technologically advanced compared to his time, when print media and face-to-face communication were in use instead of social media and electronic devices. Students of the 1960s also did not have to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic which led to distance learning and even less social contact.
University of Hawaii
After high school graduation in 1962, Acoba attended the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where he was active in student government and served as vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii (ASUH). The winds of political change were beginning to blow on the Manoa campus, and Acoba supported calls for racial justice and equality.
As a young political science major and chair of the Civil Rights Committee, Acoba led efforts to bring Martin Luther King Jr. to campus during Civil Rights Week to a symposium with segregationist and White Citizens Council leader William James Simmons.
King wasn’t the only big fish invited to campus. Mukai, who was a fellow ASUH senator, says that Acoba was instrumental in getting James Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Ali, national secretary of the Nation of Islam to attend. Both men were larger-than- life figures during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
“There certainly was awe that UH students were able to bring these individuals to the UH campus,” Mukai says.
On February 19, 1964, King delivered his speech “Progress Toward Desegregation” at Andrews Amphitheatre to a standing room only crowd of 10,000 that spilled out onto the lawn. In the days that followed, a number of community groups hosted King for special events and engagements.
After graduating from law school in 1969, Acoba was appointed by State Chief Justice William Richardson to serve as his judicial clerk. He did legal research and writing to assist the Chief Justice’s decisions on court cases. Unbeknownst to the future Supreme Court Justice, the seeds of greatness were being sown as Acoba learned how to work with judges and to be a part of the court system.
Having lived through the 1960s, the legal system for Acoba exemplified a rational and orderly way to achieve resolution of conflicts and serving as a judicial clerk seemed the most direct way to observe the legal system in operation.
In the years that followed, Acoba served in a number of capacities, including special assistant to UH President Harlan Cleveland, State Deputy Attorney General, private attorney on special contract with the Attorney General’s Office in the areas of public utilities and occupational and health, the State House of Representatives Majority Research Office, and as an adjunct professor at the UH law school.
He gained invaluable experience working in the executive branch of government and in specialized areas like public utilities law and safety regulations for workers. The State House gave him experience in drafting laws and legislative reports, while teaching increased his appreciation for the study of law.
Acoba also spent a number of years in private practice. Interestingly enough, he once shared office space with Ben Cayetano.
“We shared a common background of being Filipino, growing up in Kalihi, attending Farrington High School and being part of the small group of Filipino attorneys in Hawaii at that time,” Acoba says. “As our practices progressed, we took separate paths. Ben was a successful lawyer who also entered politics and was destined to become Governor. I ended up in the Judiciary. I have the utmost respect for his integrity and courage and am happy to know him as a friend.”
In private practice, Acoba was engaged in criminal, civil and family court, state and federal court, transactional matters involving wills, deeds, business organizations and contracts, as well as trials and appeals.
One of his first cases in private practice involved a young woman who was arrested for shoplifting. Because of her age and lack of a criminal record, she possibly qualified for a “deferred acceptance of guilty plea” which allowed for a dismissal of a minor charge after a period of good behavior.
Back then there was no uniform process that applied to all cases, so it was left to individual judges to determine who should be granted such deferrals. Acoba’s client was denied the deferral so he appealed to the State Supreme Court which ruled that judges must consider the merits of a deferred plea based on the circumstances of the individual.
“After that decision, deferred pleas became an accepted and widespread sentencing alternative by the courts,” Acoba said. “The Legislature later adopted a statute setting forth the offenses and conditions which would be covered by deferred pleas which exist until today.”
As Judge and Justice
In 1979, he was appointed to the District Court and to Circuit Court and the Intermediate Court of Appeals in 1980 and 1992, respectively. The experience he gained from the wide variety of cases earlier in his career proved invaluable as he encountered all types of cases in criminal, civil, and family law.
While on the bench, Acoba gained a reputation for integrity, fairness and compassion. His colleagues were aware of his deep knowledge of and commitment to the Constitution and protection of individual rights.
Attorney Howard Luke never met Acoba despite both men having entered UH as freshmen in the Fall Semester of 1962. Luke kept hearing from those who knew Acoba that he was an outstanding student and student leader. He finally met Acoba in Circuit Court in 1981 and came away very impressed.
“Justice Acoba was the foremost legal scholar and the best writer of all the judges presiding in the Circuit Court,” says Luke, who was former president of the Hawaii State Bar Association. “Beyond his mastery of legal precedent and the rules of evidence and procedure, he demonstrated very sound judgment and great judicial temperament, being respectful to all counsel appearing in his court and the parties whom they represented.”
In 2000, Acoba was appointed by Gov. Cayetano to the State Supreme Court and confirmed by Senate. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the State and has the responsibility for fairness, equity and impartiality in the judicial system as a whole.
“In my mind, there could be no more challenging but at the same time satisfying work in the legal system than serving as a judge and justice,” says Acoba who retired in 2014.
Board of Regents
Acoba’s focus shifted to the UH campus where it all started back in the 1960s. He applied as a member of the Board of Regents, a position he was ideally suited for considering his deep ties to the University, prior work in student government and with the UH administration and the UH president, and his knowledge of public laws that affect the school.
Numerous individuals testified on his behalf, including attorney Dennis Potts, who has known Acoba for over 40 years.
“Justice Acoba is a man of unsurpassed integrity and topnotch intellect who will always make the welfare of the State of Hawaii, and specifically the University of Hawaii, his top priority regardless of what extraneous or political issues may be involved,” Potts said in written testimony.
He was confirmed in 2014 and reconfirmed in 2017. Among his priorities are meeting three major challenges facing the University—maintenance and repair of campus facilities, making the University as self-sustaining as possible, and the long-term declining student enrollment.
Childhood friend Mukai says Acoba has never forgotten his roots.
“His core values of trust, fairness, integrity and friendship have not wavered during the many years I’ve known him,” Mukai says. “I’m especially proud that my friend and classmate is still willing and able to serve the University, our community and the Hawaii that we all love.”
A Look Back
Acoba’s successful career in public service is an inspiration to many young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Filipinos in particular, are the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii but comprise only 13 percent of all students in the UH system. This under- representation is true even at the highest judicial levels where in 2019 only 8 of the 81 state judges in Hawaii were of Filipino ancestry.
Acoba estimates that over the last decade, Filipinos constituted only 2 to 4 percent of the total number of lawyers in Hawaii. He hopes more Filipinos will enter the legal field, particularly since judges and lawyers play a significant role in social justice.
“In a democracy, racial diversity has the advantage of bringing different perspectives and experiences to bear on legal issues, and also a diverse court may be viewed as more representative of society,” Acoba says.
In 2008, Acoba founded and served as first chair of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, in which lawyers volunteer their services to members of the public who cannot afford the high cost of legal services. Due largely to Acoba’s efforts, the doors to legal services have been opened to those who were historically left out.
A few years later, Acoba and his wife Carolyn generously endowed a new scholarship for the UH William S. Richardson School of Law with preference to a deserving student from a public high school.
For his many accomplishments, Acoba received the prestigious Opperman Award from the American Judicature Society in 2013 and the UH Founders Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award from the UH Alumni Association in 2015. When asked what legacy he wants to leave behind for future generations, he said history will ultimately decide.
“Your legacy is something others will confer on you,” he says. “The best you can do is to be true to your beliefs, keep your commitments, respect others, and be tolerant.”
Read Hawaii Filipino Chronicle’s Q&A with the Honorable Simeon Acoba here.