Race-Based Government in Paradise?

The current Supreme Court term is a bit of a letdown for those of us who track and comment on the machinations of One First Street; a steady diet of technical statutory interpretation questions without many “meaty” constitutional issues. Well, yesterday Cato filed its first amicus brief of the term in a case that itself is fairly sui generis — the issue is whether Hawaii can sell certain state lands without getting approval from a weird racialist commission called the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). But the case has broader ramifications for the Court’s equal protection jurisprudence. Moreover, as Cato’s resident Hawaii expert (we have a low bar here for that niche), I can say that the case threatens to set a terrible precedent for a state that has otherwise been a model of racial harmony.

In the 2000 case of Rice v. Cayetano, the Supreme Court held that a race-based scheme allowing only statutorily defined “Hawaiians” to vote for the OHA’s trustees was unconstitutional. Despite Rice, and despite Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissenting statement in Plessy v. Ferguson 112 years ago that “[o]ur Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” the OHA continues to view Hawaiian citizens through racial lenses. This practice has spawned numerous lawsuits, including the present legal crisis in which the state’s sovereign authority to manage its land for the good of all of its citizens has been replaced with a court-imposed duty to hold the land for the benefit of one racial class.

Specifically, the Hawaii Supreme Court blocked the sale of certain state lands based on a mistaken (and race-based) interpretation of a joint resolution that Congress passed in 1993 to apologize to Hawaiian people for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii — which was itself based on a slanted view of history. Cato’s brief, joining with the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Center for Equal Opportunity, argues that race-based government is impermissible under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, that the Constitution’s Indian Commerce Clause does not provide a basis for laws that grant preferences to “Native Hawaiians,” and that the Apology Resolution neither amended nor rescinded the federal laws that gave the State of Hawaii full control over the disputed land.

For other filings in the case, see here. Argument is scheduled for February 25.