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Justices Limit the Reach of Apology to Hawaiians

Published: March 31, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A 1993 Congressional apology for the United States' role in overthrowing Hawaii's monarchy a century earlier does not prohibit Hawaiian officials from selling or transferring state land, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

Last year the Supreme Court of Hawaii, relying on the Congressional apology, ruled that a proposed land transfer on Maui could not proceed until the claims of Native Hawaiians were resolved. The ruling affected not just the parcel immediately at issue but a total of some 1.2 million acres, almost a third of all the land in the state.

The land was ceded to the United States after the monarchy's overthrow and was returned to Hawaii in 1959 when it was admitted as a state. In 1993, Congress adopted a joint resolution apologizing for the overthrow. The resolution, in vague introductory language, noted that "the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims" to the land and that they had "deep feelings and attachment" to it.

The State Supreme Court relied on that and similar language to find that the Maui land in dispute could not be transferred to a state housing agency without a disclaimer preserving the potential claims of Native Hawaiians. The court said the Congressional resolution dictated that result.

Writing for a unanimous United States Supreme Court in the case, Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, No. 07-1372, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. rejected that interpretation of the resolution. Introductory "whereas" clauses cannot bear much weight and must be read narrowly, Justice Alito wrote.

And, he said, had the resolution meant what the state court believed it did, it would "raise grave constitutional concerns if it purported to 'cloud' Hawaii's title to its sovereign lands more than three decades after the state's admission to the Union."

The Supreme Court ruled only on the impact of the resolution. It sent the case back to the State Supreme Court for consideration of property rights under state law and what a brief from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state-created body representing Native Hawaiians, called "broader moral and political claims for compensation for the wrongs of the past."

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