Uale Helps Hawai’i Families Torn by Adversity

BYU Hawaii

Courtney Ortega & Nicholas Wiggan, Editor-In-Chief, Reporter

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A striking man appeared before the teen audience in room 261 at this year’s Career Day. Exuding a strong presence combined with a warm personality, he introduced himself as Bode Uale, Oahu’s First Circuit Family Court Judge. Uale is the first Family Court judge appointed in the United States who is of Samoan descent.

Uale is a local boy, who attended Kahuku High School. When he spoke at Radford High School’s Career Day, he reminisced on how a similar event was held at his alma mater.  Growing up, he aspired to be a firefighter because firefighters were “cool” and they “had the large truck.”

“I remember going to my career fair and seeing a lawyer speak to us in a nice suit and tie and deciding I want to do what he does,” he said. That’s when he decided on going to college.

But, his grades were considered average and in a meeting with his counselor, she told him he would not get into college with his GPA. After hearing that, he decided to do the “nerdy” thing at the time, which was to get help from his teachers and spend less time with his football teammates.

Uale graduated in 1979 from Brigham Young University-Hawaii with a degree in political science. He made the decision to enter law after he realized that he liked helping people, and earned his Juris Doctorate in 1984 from the University of Hawaii.

Looking for work after he graduated was tough. Uale described that the job search showed no promise until he received a job offer from the Office of the Public Defender. He hesitated, but his wife encouraged him to take the job.

Uale accepted the position and started his career as a public defender in 1984. “I represented criminals and the bad guys, but that’s not what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to help put them in jail.”  He later realized that there was need for help on both sides and good could come from keeping innocent people out of jail.

“Being Samoan and speaking Samoan really helped when I was a public defender,” he said. “I was mainly working with those of Samoan or Hawaiian descent and I was able to translate and help them understand better.”

After his five year term with the Office of the Public Defender, he joined a private law practice from 1989-1991. A judge told Uale that he would make a great judge and suggested that he stop by the courthouse to see if he liked working as one. He was appointed to the Family Court Justice in 1992 by Chief of Justice Herman Lum. Since then, Hawaii and its distressed families have been given a second chance.

Uale’s current assignment is as Lead Judge of the Domestic Division of the Honolulu Family Court. “Not many lawyers would go near or touch family court with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “It’s a tough job, especially when families don’t follow the plan.”

Family Court addresses emotional topics such divorce, child and spousal support, custody, division of assets, adoption, termination of parental rights, child and domestic abuse, and juvenile crime cases.

“The first time I sentenced a juvenile to the Ho’omalu Juvenile Hall, I went to the bathroom and threw up,” said Uale. “It is such an awful feeling. Doing everything you can, and nothing was working.”

Uale said that some of people he sees are angry with the system and try to fight it. He often has to revoke child custody from users of illegal substances and those who have addictions to intoxicating substances that prove dangerous to their children.

Family Court offers a chance for families to be together, after being separated by substance abuse. Under Uale, users go through a four-step recovery program which incorporates responsibility, structure, and control. Every person in the program is supervised, guided and supported during their time in the program. After treatment, family members must find employment or attend school, and secure a safe place to live. They must keep up with appointments and are required to avoid people, places or situations that provoke or tempt them to start using illegal or intoxicating substances.

Uale works in a way that helps Hawaii families and gives them hope. “The most rewarding thing about my job is watching families fight through the illness, the fear, the anger and the setbacks, and finally graduate [the four-step recovery program].”

Uale continues to be a judge in the Honolulu Family Court when his term ends in 2016.