Keala Ede ’00

By Andy Faught Photos by Stephanie Rau

As the first Native Hawaiian judge in Minnesota history, Keala Ede brings a commitment to justice to his courtroom—and a taste of surf culture to the shores of Lake Superior.

Keala Ede ’00 prepares to surf on Lake Superior in Minnesota.

Lake Superior isn’t likely to conjure images of a surfer’s paradise. But nearly 4,000 miles away from Kawaiku‘i Beach Park in his native Hawai‘i, Keala Ede ’00 isn’t quibbling about the chilly breakers, which can exceed 20 feet in stormy conditions. 

“I never thought that I would surf with tall pine trees lining the shore and snow-covered slopes, but there’s beauty in that, too,” says Ede, who last September was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, making him the first Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) judge in the North Star State’s history. “It’s one little way I try to stay connected to my upbringing and my culture.”

The judgeship is the latest step in a journey—true to his first name, which means “path” in Hawaiian—that includes stints in private practice in Honolulu and Minnesota, and with the Hennepin County District Court, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Public Defender's Office. It was at the attorney general’s office that Ede successfully prosecuted criminal Medicaid fraud as well as a for-profit college’s use of deceptive business practices.

The son of a Native Hawaiian mother and a father of Norwegian ancestry—the two met as undergraduates at Pacific University in Oregon—Ede grew up on the island of O‘ahu. He was drawn to Occidental not just because his older brother, Kaleo ’97, was enrolled there, but also because he sought a life steeped in the humanities. He also competed on the water polo and swim teams and was an Academic All-American in both sports while at Oxy. 

One of the biggest things that Oxy emphasized from start to finish was critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to communicate effectively. I’ve used those throughout my educational and professional career.

Growing up in a place of natural beauty, Ede cultivated an interest in both math and science. Once he got to Occidental, he figured he’d pursue a career in those disciplines. Away from the classroom, however, a legal case erupting out of Hawai‘i and culminating at the Supreme Court would change the trajectory of his career. 

In a 7-2 vote, the majority ruled in Rice v. Cayetano (2000) that the Hawai‘i Constitution violated the 15th Amendment voting protections against race-based qualifications. The decision gave non-Native Hawaiians the ability to vote for trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which was established to improve the well-being of Native Hawaiians through advocacy, research, community engagement, land management, and the funding of community programs.

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Keala Ede

“The case was very big news throughout all of its proceedings during my college years,” Ede recalls—the original trial court decision was in May 1997—“and was a very big reason why I decided to go to law school. It opened my eyes to the ways in which the law can affect individual rights.” Ede got involved in Occidental’s Pre-Law Society and would graduate magna cum laude with a double major in politics and psychology. He later earned a law degree at UC Berkeley, where he met his wife, Prairie, who was raised in Minnesota.

“One of the biggest things that Oxy emphasized from start to finish was critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to communicate effectively,” he says. “I’ve used those throughout my educational and professional career.”

With Prairie, a former legal services attorney who now works for the Minnesota State Department of Labor and Industry, Ede frequently gives his three children a taste of their heritage. He volunteers with a weekly Native Hawaiian music, dance, and culture class in which his kids participate. The family brings Hawaiian food back from O‘ahu and seeks it out near their home in Bloomington. 

Brother Kaleo, a pediatric rheumatologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, praises Keala for his “thoughtfulness, empathy, and truthfulness.”

“He’s excelled in the law because he’s been able to connect with people and put himself in other people’s shoes,” Kaleo adds. “That sets him apart.”

While surfing may run in Ede’s blood, so does a commitment to judicial integrity. “I believe that the work of public servants is to work for the greater good,” he says. “Although there’s a lot of distrust in our democratic institutions right now, I have always admired people who are committed to upholding the rule of law and equal justice for all, regardless of background or political persuasion. I try to be one of those people every day.”