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Resolve homelands issue


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POSTED: Sunday, November 08, 2009

Long before Hawaii became a state, Congress established the Hawaiian Homes Commission to set aside public lands for native Hawaiians to apply for residential homesteads. Implementation of the admirable program was abysmal, and a state judge has rightly concluded that intended benefactors deserve monetary compensation for their futile wait.

Circuit Judge Eden Elizabeth Hifo ruled that the state had failed in its responsibility to distribute the land in a timely manner, a neglect that has been realized almost since the inception of the commission, now the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. A federal task force recognized the problems in 1983. Only 6,000 of 25,000 beneficiaries on the waiting list have been given homesteads.

The state Legislature agreed in 1991 on an avenue of redress for those who had been denied land by enacting a limited waiver of sovereignt immunity, allowing them to seek compensation through an administrative process, if they did so by 1995.

Only two claims had been satisfied by 1999, when a lawsuit with 2,752 Hawaiians as plaintiffs—of the 20,000 or so who had been on the waiting list—was filed, and the state Supreme Court upheld its legitimacy three years ago. The thrust of the high court's 64-page ruling will make any appeal of Hifo's ruling a long shot.

Hifo's ruling came last week at the end of a five-week trial, the first of a two-part proceeding; the second part is to be aimed at determining the amount of compensation. Hifo has suggested instead that a special master be appointed to help determine how claims will be resolved.

Carl Varady, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said it would be “;purely speculative”; to say how much money will be involved. However, a panel created by the 1999 Legislature estimated that the claims by 47 percent of all the plaintiffs' claims would total $60 million in compensation, so the amount to be determined in court could exceed twice that—plus the rent paid and the equity lost in the past decade.

The state Attorney General's Office issued a prepared statement that it is “;reviewing the decision to determine the appropriate next steps.”;

The state can only hope that the compensation be paid after it emerges from the current recession, but that may be too much to ask. More than 300 of the plaintiffs have died in the past decade and many of the remaining ones are elderly, so urgency is an issue. So is justice.