Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

PETITIONER:State of Hawaii
RESPONDENT:Office of Hawaiian Affairs
LOCATION:Leiali’i Parcel

DOCKET NO.: 07-1372
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Hawaii

CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2008
ARGUED: Feb 25, 2009
DECIDED: Mar 31, 2009

Kannon K. Shanmugam – argued the cause for the respondents
Mark J. Bennett – argued the cause for the petitioner
William M. Jay – Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), filed suit against the state of Hawaii to prevent the transfer of “ceded” lands for the purpose of private development. The OHA was established to manage the proceeds from lands ceded by the Kingdom of Hawaii following its overthrow by the United States. The lands were marked to provide for the benefit of native Hawaiians. The OHA argued that “any transfer of ceded lands by the State to third parties would amount to a breach of trust” and would be without consideration of the claims of native Hawaiians to those lands. However, the trial court held that the State did have the power to transfer the lands. The OHA appealed.

The Supreme Court of Hawaii overruled the trial court’s decision and remanded the case with instructions to issue an injunction to prevent the transfer of ceded lands from the public trust. In its reasoning, it citedAhuna to illustrate that the State as trustee of these lands was under an obligation to administer the trust ‘solely in the interest of the beneficiary’ (native Hawaiians). Further, it gave great weight to the Apology Resolution passed by the United States Congress in 1993 to mark the 100th Anniversary of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. This resolution stated that “native Hawaiians (1) ‘never directly relinquished their claims to… their national lands to the United States,’ and (2) ‘are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territory.'” Therefore, the court held, it was the responsibility of the State of Hawaii to preserve the ceded lands in the public trust, at least until such land claims were resolved.


Does the symbolic Apology Resolution restrict the State of Hawaii’s sovereign authority to transfer publicly held land for private development, at least until claims over such land are resolved?

Media for Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – February 25, 2009 in Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 31, 2009 in Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has our opinion this morning in case 07-1372, Hawaii versus Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case comes to us from the Supreme Court of Hawaii after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

The United States annexed Hawaii as a territory and years later, admitted it to the Union as the 58th State.

In 1993, Congress passed an Apology Resolution which apologized to the native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of Hawaiian monarchy.

After the enactment of the Apology Resolution, respondent Office of Hawaiian Affairs filed this lawsuit in the Hawaii State Court.

Respondent claimed that the Apology Resolution constituted a congressional recognition of unrelinquished land claims held by native Hawaiians against the State of Hawaii.

Respondent therefore sought an injunction to prevent the State from selling its sovereign lands pending resolution of those unrelinquished claims.

The state trial court denied respondents’ request for relief but the Supreme Court of Hawaii reversed.

Relying on the Apology Resolution, the State Supreme Court agreed with respondent and barred the State from selling certain of its lands.

We conclude that the Apology Resolution did not purport to have legal effect.

Indeed, the resolution would create serious constitutional concerns if it had attempted to cloud Hawaii’s title to its sovereign lands more than three decades after the State’s admission to the Union.

For this and other reasons set out in an opinion filed today with the clerk, we reverse the decision of the Supreme Court of Hawaii and remand for further proceedings.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.