Rice v. Cayetano

LOCATION: Hawaii Office of Elections

DOCKET NO.: 98-818
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 528 US 495 (2000)
ARGUED: Oct 06, 1999
DECIDED: Feb 23, 2000

Edwin S. Kneedler - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

The Hawaiian Constitution limits the right to vote for the nine trustees of the state agency known as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). The agency administers programs designed for the benefit of two subclasses of Hawaiian citizenry, "Hawaiians," defined as descendants of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the Islands before 1778, and "native Hawaiians," defined as descendants of the peoples inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Only "Hawaiians" may vote in the statewide election for the trusties. Harold Rice, born in Hawaii and a Hawaiian citizen, does not have the requisite ancestry to be a "Hawaiian" under state law. However, Rice applied to vote in OHA trustee elections. After Rice's application was denied, he sued Hawaiian Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano, claiming that the voting exclusion was invalid under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Federal District Court granted the state summary judgment. The court examined the voting qualifications with the latitude applied to legislation passed pursuant to Congress' power over Indian affairs, and found that the electoral scheme was rationally related to the state's responsibility to utilize a part of the proceeds from certain public lands for the native Hawaiians' benefit. In affirming, the Court of Appeals found that Hawaii "may rationally conclude that Hawaiians, being the group to whom trust obligations run and to whom OHA trustees owe a duty of loyalty, should be the group to decide who the trustees ought to be."


Does the Hawaiian Constitutional provision, which limits the right to for the trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to qualified "Hawaiians," violate the Fifteenth Amendment by creating a race-based voting qualification?

Media for Rice v. Cayetano

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 06, 1999 in Rice v. Cayetano

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 23, 2000 in Rice v. Cayetano

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-818, Rice versus Cayetano will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The State of Hawaii has a statewide election for a state agency known as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs or OHA.

Now the Hawaiian Constitution limits the people that can vote in that Trustee election.

The agency administers programs designed for the benefit of two subclasses of the Hawaiian citizenry.

The first and the smaller subclass comprises native Hawaiians.

Under the statute in Hawaii, you are a native Hawaiian, if you are a person with not less than one half part of your ancestry traceable to the races that inhabited the Hawaiian islands prior to 1778 -- and this larger class is determined by the statute Hawaiians -- this a smaller class that is called native Hawaiians, and there is a larger class termed by the statute ‘Hawaiians’, and this includes native Hawaiians who have one half ancestry, but extends also to a person who can trace any part of their ancestry to the people inhabiting the Hawaiian islands in 1778.

The petitioner is Harold Rice, and he is a citizen of Hawaii and is himself a Hawaiian in a well-accepted sense of that term, but he doesn’t have the requisite ancestry, even for the larger of the two statutory classes.

He is not then a Hawaiian in terms of the statute, so he may not vote in the Trustee election.

And the issue in the case is whether Rice may be barred from the State Election.

In 1996, Rice applied to vote in the election for the trustees; the state denied the application; he sued and contested his exclusion under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Surveying the history of the islands and their people, the District Court determined that Congress and the State of Hawaii have recognized a Guardian-Ward relationship with the native Hawaiians.

The Court found that relationship analogous to the relationship between the United States and Indian Tribes.

On this premise, the court examined the voting qualification with the latitude that we have applied to legislation passed pursuant to Congress’Indian Affairs powers.

The District Court upheld the law, the United States Court Of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, we granted certiorari and we now reverse.

The purpose in the command of the Fifteenth Amendment are set forth in language both explicit and comprehensive.

The National Government and the States may not violate a fundamental principle.

They may not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race.

In earlier cases, various indirect ways were used to confine the vote to a single race; we struck down those statutes.

Here, the voting structure and its limitation is neither subtle nor indirect; it is specific in granting the vote to persons of defined ancestry and to no others.

Ancestry can be a proxy for race, and it is that proxy here.

Because of the importance of the history of the Hawaiian islands and their people to this case, the opinion filed today provides a rather detailed historical account; it is still a brief summary and it provides a history in encapsulated form from the first Polynesian voyagers through Captain Cooks landfall in 1778 and up to the present day.

For centuries, Hawaii was isolated from migration; the inhabitants shared common physical characteristics, and by 1778 they had a common culture.

The very object of the statutory definition that’s here in question is to treat the early Hawaiians as a distinct people.

The state has used ancestry as a racial qualification and for a racial purpose.

The ancestral inquiry mandated by the State implicates the same grave concerns as a classification specifying a particular race by name.

It demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities.

An inquiry into an ancestral alliance is not consistent with respect based on the unique personality each of us possesses, the respect the Constitution itself secures in its concern for persons and citizens.

The ancestral inquiry is forbidden for the further reason that the use of racial classifications is corruptive of the whole legal order that democratic elections seek to preserve.

The law itself may not become the instrument for generating the prejudice and hostility, all too often directed against persons whose particular ancestry is disclosed by their ethnic characteristics and cultural traditions.

Now the state has offered three principal defenses for its voting law, and we reject each of them.