Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs (2009)
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
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Whether a particular symbolic congressional resolution strips Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell, exchange, or transfer any state-owned land unless and until it reaches a political settlement with native Hawaiians about the status of that land.
After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Congress annexed the Territory of Hawaii pursuant to the Newlands Resolution, under which Hawaii ceded to the United States the “absolute fee” and ownership of all public, government, and crown lands. In 1959, the Admission Act made Hawaii a state, transferring the public land to the newly formed Hawaiian state, but in “public trust.” Hawaii state law authorizes the state to use or sell the formerly ceded lands, provided the proceeds are held in trust for Hawaiian citizens. In 1993, Congress issued a joint Apology Resolution for its role in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy but declared that nothing in the resolution was “intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”
The “Leiali’I parcel” is a tract of former crown land on Maui that was ceded to the U.S. at annexation and has been held by the state since the Admission Act in 1959. Hawaii’s affordable housing agency (HFDC) received approval to redevelop the land upon compensating the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which manages funds from the use or sale of ceded lands for the benefit of native Hawaiians. After HFDC refused OHA’s demand that the payment include a disclaimer preserving any native Hawaiian claims to the land, OHA sued to prohibit the sale of the parcel and any other ceded lands until final determination of native Hawaiians’ claims were settled. The HFDC responded, claiming that the state had the authority to distribute, sell, or otherwise alienate state owned property.
The Court Below
Hawaii’s First Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case after a jury at the trial court waved trial. The court ruled in favor of the state of Hawaii, holding that the state had the authority to sell or otherwise alienate state-owned property. See opinion below:
Office of Hawaiian Affairs v. Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai’i, Civil No. 94-4207 (Haw. Ct. App., 2003)
The Hawaii Supreme Court was the next court to hear the case. It overturned the decision of the court below, holding that the 1993 congressional joint Apology Resolution gave rise to Hawaii’s fiduciary duty to preserve the ceded lands until claims of native Hawaiians are resolved. See opinion below:
Office of Hawaiian Affairs v. Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai’i, 117 Hawai’i 174 (Hawai’i, 2008)
The state appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States and the Court granted certiorari. The Court overturned the ruling of the Hawaii Supreme Court, holding that the congressional resolution did not strip the state of its sovereign authority over ceded lands. See opinion below:
Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 129 S.Ct. 1436 (2009)
“In the Joint Resolution to Acknowledge the 100th Anniversary of the January 17, 1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Congress acknowledged and apologized for the United States’ role in that overthrow. The question here is whether this symbolic resolution strips Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell, exchange, or transfer 1.2 million acres of state land—29 percent of the total land area of the State and almost all the land owned by the State—unless and until it reaches a political settlement with native Hawaiians about the status of that land.”
CCJ filed an amicus curiae in support of Hawaii
First, the federal government granted to the state title and control of the majority of all federally held, territorial land in Hawaii. Second, according to practice and history, once land is granted to the states by the federal government, Congress cannot impose new restrictions on the alienation of the land. Also, the Hawaii Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Apology Resolution creates a new restriction on state land: a federal restriction on the use of state land without just compensation. If the state supreme court’s interpretation of the resolution is correct then Congress exceeded its authority.
It is undisputable that the land in question was granted to Hawaii upon admission as a state in 1959. The land grant (including proceeds from the sale of land) was for the benefit of public schools, promotion of farm and home ownership, lands for public use, and “the betterment of the condition of the Hawaiians.” The federal government provided, “All laws of the United States reserving to the United States the free use or enjoyment of property which vests in or is conveyed to the State of Hawaii … shall cease to be effective upon the admission of the State of Hawaii into the Union.” The Supreme Court held in Bolln v. Nebraska (1900) that each new state comes to the Union with the same “rights of dominion and sovereignty which belonged to the original states.” This equality between new and original states has come to be known as the Equal Footing Doctrine. Because Hawaii was admitted under the Equal Footing Doctrine, it has the same sovereignty over state lands as do the thirteen original states after the ratification of the Constitution.
Once land is granted to the states, Congress may not impose new restrictions on said lands. Madison made clear in Federalist No. 45 that the Founders intended to establish a national government with few and expressly defined powers, reserving to the states or people unenumerated powers. The courts have affirmed this basic understanding of limited government and federalism throughout U.S. history. The decision in Alden v. Maine (1999) held that states were not “relegated to the role of mere provinces or political corporations, but retain the dignity, though not the full authority, of sovereignty.” Because of the sovereignty of states, this court held in the 1984 case Summa Corp v. California ex rel. State Lands Comm’n that generally the states retain the sole power to control state-owned land. This includes the power to sell or otherwise dispense with the property as they choose (See Pollard v. Hagan, 1845). This precedent was most recently upheld in the 2005 case Alaska v. United States. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the Apology Resolution altered the land grant given in 1959 and revoked the power of the state to sell or distribute the land until it met further conditions. Such a ruling clearly violates the established precedent that states have control over their land.
The court below erroneously interpreted the Apology Resolution to create a new type of restriction regarding the states’ control of land. It held the Resolution was neither a taking of property nor a transfer of the property to a third par, but instead restricted the state from selling or otherwise alienating its land. No longer could the land in question be used to support public education or promote home ownership as the Admission Act required, the lower court held. Instead, the lands must now be devoted to resolution of “unrelinquished claims” of the descendants of native Hawaiians alive at the time of the Hawaiian monarchy. If that is what Congress intended, which itself is dubious, then nonetheless Congress exceeded its authority. Because Hawaii was admitted on an equal footing with the other 49 states, Congress had no power to revisit its grant of lands to the state 44 years after the fact and impose new restrictions on the state’s power to alienate that land. Thus, the Hawaii Supreme Court erred in holding that Congress could add new conditions restricting the power of states to alienate state-owned property.
The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the court below in a 9-0 decision, holding that the Apology Resolution did not strip Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell, exchange, or transfer state owned land. Its holding aligned with CCJ’s argument that once land is ceded to the states upon admittance, the states have control of that land and Congress cannot impose new restrictions on the alienation of the land.