trustees bank on
The trust retains a mainland law
firm to defend its entry policy
Kamehameha Schools' officials expressed confidence yesterday that the courts will uphold its admission policy, which gives preference to children of native Hawaiian ancestry.
Responding to a lawsuit seeking to overturn its admission policy, the $6 billion trust issued a statement saying it planned to vigorously defend its decades-old policy.
Although the trust declined to discuss its legal strategy, people familiar with the estate said that it recently hired a high-powered mainland law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. The estate also retained a politically connected local public relations firm to help with issues specific to the lawsuit, they said.
"Kamehameha Schools will continue to uphold Princess Pauahi's mission to provide educational opportunities for Hawaiians," Colleen Wong, the estate's acting chief executive, said in a press release. "We can assure our stakeholders that defending this lawsuit will not have an impact on the Kamehameha Schools' operations or its educational programs."
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court on behalf of an unnamed non-Hawaiian student who alleges that his civil rights were violated when the school denied him admission due to race.
The suit is being handled by Sacramento, Calif., lawyer Eric Grant, a constitutional law expert, and local attorney John Goemans, who successfully challenged the Hawaiian-only voting for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections before the U.S. Supreme Court three years ago in the landmark Rice vs. Cayetano case.
Unlike the Rice case, which is based on groundbreaking constitutional arguments, Goemans said his current lawsuit is based on civil rights laws where the case law is clearer. He likened the new lawsuit to a job discrimination case.
According to Goemans, the student applied for admission into Kamehameha Schools' middle school in 2002 and 2003 and was placed on the wait list for qualified students. But his application was denied after he told the school that none of his grandparents had Hawaiian blood.
"This is purely and simply about private discrimination in education," Goemans said. "All you have to do is establish that the applicant is not on an equal footing with an applicant of other races and that there is an insurmountable racial barrier."
Jan Dill, president of Na Pua a Ke Alii Pauahi, which is a 900-member Kamehameha Schools alumni and parent organization, said that Goemans' lawsuit turns the civil rights law on its head.
Such laws were designed to address racial discrimination problems and disadvantaged minorities such as Hawaiians, he said.
"It's a wonderland. All of the sudden, black is white and white is black, and the Mad Hatter is loose," said Dill.
Founded in 1884 by the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the Kamehameha Schools is one of the nation's richest charities and educates nearly 5,000 children of native Hawaiian ancestry each year.
Over the years, the school's admission policy of giving preference to Hawaiian students has been upheld by the Internal Revenue Service but has not been challenged in court.
Last year, for the first time in about four decades, the estate admitted a student with no Hawaiian blood. After a subsequent uproar in the Hawaiian community, the trustees agreed to re-evaluate the admission policy and later reaffirmed their Hawaiians-only preference system.
Edward Blum, senior fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity of Sterling, Va., said the nation's courts have consistently ruled against raced-based admission policies since 1978 with the landmark University of California Regents vs. Bakke case. In that case the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the UC-Davis law school's admission program's policy of reserving a fixed number of spots to minority students.
Blum cited this week's ruling by the high court that upheld the University of Michigan law school's affirmative action program but struck down race-based admission policies at one of the university's main undergraduate schools.
"The lesson that we learned in Michigan is identical to lessons we've learned over the past 40 years: namely that race-exclusive programs are never considered constitutional," Blum said.