Lawsuit against OHA revived
The suit to halt certain funding has legal basis, rules a 9th Circuit panel
A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a lawsuit five native Hawaiians filed against the Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees to stop the state agency from funding programs for those who have less than 50 percent Hawaiian blood.
U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway threw out the legal challenge last August, saying recent Supreme Court cases had undermined prior case law and the suit wouldn't be supported.
But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Mollway's decision, saying there is well-established precedent supporting the basis for the suit.
The appeals court didn't rule on the merits of the case but instead ordered it back to District Court for consideration.
Recent Supreme Court cases "have not so changed the law that it is now irreconcilable with our prior cases," the judges' opinion said. "We (and the district court) are bound by our earlier precedent."
Walter Schoettle, the lawyer for plaintiffs Virgil Day, Mel Hoomanawanaui, Josiah Hoohuli, Patrick Kahawaiolaa and former OHA Trustee Samuel Kealoha, said his clients were happy with the ruling and very pleased that "justice is being done."
"It's the result we expected and the correct result," Schoettle said. "This is what we've been arguing."
Noting the case was only remanded to District Court, Schoettle said he and his clients would once more appear before Mollway to "prove they have been misspending the money."
Robert Klein, representing OHA trustees, said he's fully prepared to defend his clients' case on the merits.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett, who made the argument the appeals court panel rejected, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
The state is not a party in the lawsuit, so it doesn't have the right to appeal to the full appeals court unless it decides it can and should intervene, Bennett said. The state plans to discuss what to do over the next few days, Bennett said.
"OHA continues to believe that there is no merit in the plaintiffs' position," OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said. "We believe we will ultimately prevail based on the merits of this case."
The lawsuit said OHA had breached the public land trust by paying for programs for all Hawaiians, regardless of their blood quantum.
OHA, which was created by an amendment to the Hawaii Constitution in 1978, is financed in part by revenues from ceded lands that belonged to Hawaiian royalty.
OHA receives $15.1 million each year in ceded-land revenues. The agency's operating budget also received $2.8 million from the state general fund for this fiscal year, OHA said.
Ceded lands refer to Hawaiian monarchy land that was transferred to the federal government when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. The land was later handed over to the state when the islands became a state in 1959.