ALEXANDRE DA SILVA / ADASILVA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Leona Kalima, Dianne Boner and Raynette Nalani Ah Chong spoke yesterday about a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in support of their Hawaiian Home Lands claims.
Hawaiians win in land dispute
The state high court rules beneficiaries can pursue land claims and monetary damages
More than 2,700 native Hawaiians can seek monetary damages from the state for its alleged mismanagement of the Hawaiian Home Lands program, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Upholding a lower court's ruling, five judges also concluded that as many as 2,721 beneficiaries can pursue land claims that were once up for consideration by a review panel suspended in 1999, said Thomas Grande, attorney for the plaintiffs.
The suit, brought by three women, argues that the homesteading program set up under the 1959 Statehood Admissions Act mishandled thousands of land claims under an extensive wait list. It also faults the land trust for allegedly awarding properties lacking access to water, damaged by illegal grading or other work.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett could not say yesterday whether the state would appeal the 64-page decision, but that his staff would review it. Lloyd Yonenaka, spokesman for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, referred questions about the case to the Attorney General's Office.
Attorneys say the ruling would allow applicants to file claims for rent paid while waiting for a Hawaiian Homes lease. Also, those with land awards could make claims for not being able to build a house or a farm because of a lack of improvements.
One of the plaintiffs, Raynette Nalani Ah Chong of Kahaluu, said the ruling will allow her to revisit an application filed in 1966 by her father, Joseph Ching, who died in 2001.
"I'm overjoyed that we finally won the battle he was fighting. Now, that my father is not here, I have to fight for his portion so that I can pass this to my mother," said an emotional Ah Chong, 48, whose mother, Wehilani Ching, lives in Hawaii Kai. "He waited long and hard for this."
The land disputes date to 1991, when the state set up the Hawaiian Homes Land Trust Individual Claims Review to investigate allegations of breaches in cases between 1959 and 1988, Grande said. But when the panel crumbled in 1999, only two cases were heard, leaving more than 2,700 challenges unresolved, he said.
The Legislature tried to keep the panel active for another year, but then-Gov. Ben Cayetano vetoed the measure. Soon after, Circuit Judge Victoria Marks ruled that claimants could sue the state for ending the review process. The state appealed, and the case wound up before the high court.
"It's been a six-year battle in the Supreme Court and the decision that was rendered today allows us to now go back to Circuit Court and to pursue these claims for monetary damages," Grande said.
The federal government set up the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921, eventually reserving 200,000 acres statewide to benefit native Hawaiians. As of May 31, there were 18,784 people waiting for leases, Yonenaka said.
But Alan Murakami, attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said the state has not adequately funded the program. He pointed to a graph that showed the department's share of state general funds decreasing dramatically in the past 20 years.
"What do you think happens as a result of that small of a budget for this big of a mission?" he asked. "This is an example of how the state has given very little priority to the most important and fundamental mission of the state as a result of joining the federal union."
Dianne Boner, a plaintiff from Waipahu, said her application has been pending since 1971. Because agency staff originally assigned to her claim are long gone, Boner said it's hard to check the status of her case.
"Just to get our claims, we have to research and file it to the claims office," said Boner, 58. "They lost my paper and I had to reapply. ... It was a lot of stress."
Gov. Linda Lingle had no comment on whether her administration has given the agency enough funds, said her spokesman, Russell Pang.
The 2,721 outstanding claims range from people who argue they were given deficient land to those who believe they've been on the waiting list for an unreasonable amount of time, said plaintiffs' attorney Carl Varady. It's unclear when the claims will be presented in court, but lawyers say the state should cooperate, noting that some beneficiaries have been waiting up to 40 years for an answer.
"For this older, and perhaps more vulnerable segment of our native Hawaiian population, they've waited too long for their day in court for them to get their piece of justice," Grande said.
Claimants prevail on bumpy road to sue for monetary damages
Here is the timeline of events for the claims under the Hawaiian Home Lands program.
» 1959: State takes control of Hawaiian Homes program created by Congress in 1921.
» May 1991: State panel created to address breach of trust claims against Hawaiian Home Lands.
» February 1993: Panel begins accepting, reviewing and adjudicating claims.
» June 1995: Panel finds the trust had been mismanaged in the past and waiting list claims are valid. It begins calculating damage awards for claimants.
» August 1995: A total of 2,752 claims are filed by the Aug. 30 deadline.
» May 1997: State Legislature, supported by Gov. Ben Cayetano, creates a working group of state officials to set up formula and criteria for these claims. Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. files lawsuit six months later challenging formation of working group, which does not include any claimants.
» December 1997: Working group determines 60 percent of all claims are invalid.
» July 1998: Circuit Judge Marie Milks rules the working group is unconstitutional and violates claimants' right to due process.
» May 1999: Legislature extends the life of panel one more year to complete its work.
» June 1999: Cayetano vetoes bill, allowing the panel to sunset on Dec. 31, 1999.
» August 2000: Circuit Judge Victoria Marks rules that claimants have a right to sue the state.
» September 2000: State files an appeal with the Hawaii Supreme Court.
» June 2006: In a 5-0 decision, Chief Justice Ronald Moon writes that claimants have right to seek monetary damages in Circuit Court.