Hawaii in Legal Spotlight

Ceded lands case headed to US Supreme Court at the end of the month.
By Sean Aronson

The United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC may be far away, but it will soon tackle an issue close to home for Molokai residents – ceded lands.  The highest court in the land will address whether the State of Hawaii has the jurisdiction to sell lands that remain in dispute.

And the timing could not be more interesting.  2009 marks the 50th anniversary of Hawaii statehood.  All this less than a month after Hawaii saw its first son elected president.  This year is shaping up to be one for records, when it comes to Hawaii in the national conversation.

Molokai residents received a briefing on the ceded lands issue this past weekend.

Representatives from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the Hawaiian Affairs Committee of the State legislature gathered at Kulana `Oiwi to address their position in the ceded lands case.  The two groups have introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would place a moratorium — suspension of activity — on the sale of ceded lands.  This effort is an attempt to preempt the Supreme Court hearings, but also to send a message to the court that no matter what the decision, Hawaii lawmakers have the ability to override it.

Ceded lands are the 1.2 million acres once owned by the Hawaiian government and subsequently taken over by the United States as a result of the 1898 annexation.
The lands were then passed to the state and designated for five purposes, including — but not exclusively limited to — the betterment of Native Hawaiians. They make up the bulk of state-owned lands and are 29 percent of the state's total land area.

While it is unclear exactly which lands would be considered ceded – there is debate over who should pay for the inventory – it is highly likely Molokai contains some of these lands.  They are most likely contained in the north shore of the island, comprising parts of Pelekunu and Waikoloa.

The case has risen to the level of US Supreme Court because the State of Hawaii appealed an earlier decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court.  In that decision, the lower court ruled that the Apology Resolution of 1993 by President Clinton took away the state’s rights to ceded lands.  The resolution stated, among other things, that the 1893 overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian nation was illegal, and thus all treaties signed are rendered void.

The state, specifically Gov. Lingle’s Attorney General Marc Bennett, is arguing that the Apology Resolution does not take away their claim to the land and that the areas belong to all of Hawaii’s residents, not just those with Native Hawaiian ancestry.

The ceded lands issue is scheduled to go before the Supreme Court on February 25.  The case is Office of Hawaiian Affairs v. State of Hawaii.  To follow the progress, head over to www.supremecourtus.gov.

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