Monday, March 22, 1999

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U.S. justices
will hear OHA
voting challenge

A Big Island rancher contends
the Hawaiians-only requirement
violates the U.S. Constitution

Staff and wire reports


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court today agreed to hear a Big Island rancher's challenge of the requirements that allow only Hawaiians to vote in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections.

Harold Rice, who is white, believes he is a victim of unlawful racial bias.

A decision is expected sometime in 2000.

"I would expect the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the rights of indigenous people such as us native Hawaiians," OHA trustee Haunani Apoliona said today upon hearing the news.

Attempts to reach Rice were unsuccessful.

In May 1997, U.S. Federal District Judge David Ezra denied Rice's claim that OHA voting requirements violate the U.S. Constitution. His ruling was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last June.

In his appeal, Rice urged the high court "to overturn this pernicious doctrine and reaffirm that all race-based restrictions on the right to vote are forbidden."

The state's lawyers urged rejection of the appeal, saying Rice's "scare tactic of attempting to paint this case as involving pernicious, invidious discrimination akin to 'whites-only' racism is appalling."

The nine-member OHA panel was created in 1978 to improve the living conditions of native Hawaiians by using revenues from ceded lands. The law established for electing OHA trustees limits the voting to Hawaiians, those state residents who are descendants of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the islands before the first known European contact in 1778.

About 20 percent of the state's people have some Hawaiian blood, according to OHA.

"The franchise for choosing trustees in special elections may be limited to Hawaiians, because Hawaiians are the only group with a stake in the trust and the funds that OHA trustees administer," the appeals court ruled. The voting restriction, it said, "is not primarily racial, but legal and political."

In upholding the restriction, it relied on Supreme Court decisions that condoned limited voter eligibility for special purpose water districts and special treatment of Indians.

Rice's appeal said the appeals court "distorted beyond recognition two unrelated doctrines" to uphold "a broad and patently offensive regime of racially segregated voting."

The state case notes that Rice never challenged the validity of the underlying trust that benefits a racially identifiable group.

OHA Ceded Lands Ruling

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