Lawsuit seeks to disband Native Hawaiian agency

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) 4-08

A federal lawsuit announced during early April attempts once again to shut down Native Hawaiian programs on the grounds that they’re racially discriminatory.

The action is the latest in a long series of challenges to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which argues the state has a responsibility written into the law to improve conditions for Native Hawaiians.

The suit seeks to have $450 million in land and other assets controlled by OHA distributed to other state agencies, and it demands that the office be dismantled.

“Everyone is entitled to equal protection, not just the favored few,” said attorney William Burgess, who brought the claims on behalf of six non-Hawaiian residents.

OHA chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said the agency has “vigorously fought to protect the present and future interests of Native Hawaiians time and time again, with success.”

“These lawsuits will continue until there is clarity to the legal and political relationships Native Hawaiians have with the United States,” she said.

The agency and most Hawaii politicians support long-sought legislation known as the Akaka bill that would establish a federally recognized Native Hawaiian government, giving Hawaiians autonomy rights similar to those provided American Indians and Native Alaskans.

The lawsuit also tries to stop the Hawaiian agency from spending money supporting federal recognition or advertising on Kau Inoa, a Native Hawaiian registration project that could lead to a Hawaiian government if it eventually is approved.

“I don’t support the state using our tax money to set up a lobbying effort in Washington to ultimately form a separate race-based government,” said Toby Kravet, one of the six plaintiffs.

Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett said the lawsuit, filed Thursday, represents another legal assault on indigenous rights dating back to 2000. So far, all of those claims have failed except for one case barring Hawaiians-only elections, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This lawsuit retreads old ground,” Bennett said. “I am confident the result in this case will be the same as the result in previous cases.”

This legal challenge was filed after a U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway dismissed a similar lawsuit in April 2007 that sought to stop the state from funding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Mollway decided that taxpayers who challenged the constitutionality of the funding had no standing to bring their claims after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers don’t have the right to sue over how the government spends their money.

The main difference this time is that it goes after money in the ceded land trust, which was formed in 1898 when about 1.8 million acres of the Republic of Hawaii’s lands were transferred to the United States following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, Burgess said.

He said the trust should benefit all the people of Hawaii, not just Native Hawaiians.

The state and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs will ask for the case to be dismissed, Bennett said.

OHA receives about $15 million in ceded land revenues and $2.8 million from state general funds each year. Its total annual operating budget is about $28.5 million.

A proposed $200 million settlement to resolve outstanding disputes over ceded land payments stalled in the state Legislature this year amid concerns from Native Hawaiians that it was inadequate.

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