(Apr. 10, 2009) The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 31, 2009, that a 1993 Congressional resolution apologizing for the role of the United States in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 does not affect the right of the State of Hawaii to sell public lands.
U.S. officials participated in the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. In 1898, the U.S. annexed Hawaii and obtained ownership of all public and crown lands. In 1959, when Hawaii became a state, the U.S. granted the state government all lands it had obtained in 1898, to be held by the state as a public trust. Hawaii state law authorizes the state to sell the public lands, provided the proceeds are held in trust for Hawaiian citizens. A 1993 joint resolution by the U.S. Congress apologized for the role of the U.S. in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy. The resolution provided that nothing in the resolution was “intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.” (Joint Resolution to Acknowledge the 100th Anniversary of the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Public Law No. 103-150, 107 Stat. 1510 (1993), available at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=103_cong_bills
Hawaii's Housing Finance and Development Corporation (HFDC) received approval to remove a tract of former crown land from the public trust and redevelop it, upon compensating the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which manages funds from the use or sale of ceded lands for the benefit of native Hawaiians. Relying on the apology resolution, OHA demanded that, in addition to monetary compensation, the payment include a disclaimer preserving native Hawaiian claims to the lands. When HFDC declined, citing the difficulty in obtaining title insurance when land title is clouded, OHA sued to enjoin the sale of the parcel until final determination of native Hawaiians' claims. The state trial court entered a judgment against OHA. The Supreme Court of Hawaii vacated that judgment, ruling that the 1993 apology resolution dictated that it enjoin all sales of lands ceded to the U.S. in 1898 until resolution of the claims of native Hawaiians to those lands. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The Court first ruled that it had jurisdiction in this matter, because the Hawaii Supreme Court's decision rested on federal law, the 1993 apology resolution. The Court then held that the apology resolution did not strip Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell the lands the U.S. granted the state upon its admission to the Union. The Court said that neither of the two substantive provisions of the apology resolution – one that apologized for the role of the U.S. in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy, and another that disclaimed that the resolution served to settle any claims against the U.S. – affected Hawaii's right to sell the land granted it by the U.S. when Hawaii was admitted as a state. The Court also ruled that the numerous “whereas” clauses at the beginning of the resolution did not have operative effect on Hawaii's rights to sell public lands. (Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, No. 07-1372 (Mar. 31, 2009), available at http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/07-1372.pdf..)