Thursday, April 22, 1999

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OHA gears up
for high court case

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON - Representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs spent last week lining up high-powered legal aid and support for the upcoming Supreme Court case challenging OHA voting procedures.

In five days of meetings, the representatives, including the board's chairwoman, vice chairman, attorney and deputy administrator, tentatively picked three attorneys to prepare a legal brief for OHA, pending board approval next week.

They also persuaded the Hawaii congressional delegation to file a "friend of the court" legal brief of its own. And, they met with representatives from the U.S. Interior and Justice departments to rally more support.

"We're going to do whatever it takes," said OHA Board Chairwoman Rowena Akana. "For us, this is everything."

The Supreme Court agreed one month ago to hear a challenge from Big Island rancher Harold "Freddy" Rice to the state requirement allowing only Hawaiians to vote in OHA elections.

Rice, who is white, claims racial bias in being excluded from voting. Lower courts have rejected his challenge, ruling that the Hawaiians-only restriction is legal and political rather than racial.

The Supreme Court will hear the case during its next term, which will run from October until April of next year.

While the state will carry the main burden of arguing in favor of the Hawaiians-only requirement, the importance of the case to native Hawaiians prompted OHA to pursue its own legal strategy, said Akana.

"We want to make sure everything is covered," she said. "We want to make sure the Supreme Court gets as much information about native people as possible."

If the challenge were upheld, said Akana, it would amount to the Supreme Court saying Congress does not have the right to deal with native populations - including American Indians and Alaskans as well as native Hawaiians - on a separate, political basis.

"It would be devastating," she said.

Like the lower courts, Akana argued that the Hawaiians-only voting restriction is political rather than a racial.

"We're the native people," she said. "Mr. Rice has a different agenda. He would like to see the whole office dissolve."

Rice could not be reached for comment. In his appeal, he argued that "all race-based restrictions on the right to vote are forbidden."

A spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka, who has argued the matter should be left up to legislators rather than the courts, said the delegation takes the Rice challenge seriously and was more than willing to add its weight to the state and OHA.

Aides specializing in native Hawaiian issues for Akaka and Sen. Daniel Inouye already are drafting a legal brief, said Paul Cardus.

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