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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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U.S. Apology to Hawaii Doesn’t Cloud Land Title

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court overturned an injunction on Tuesday barring Hawaii from selling or developing a tract of land in Maui. The justices ruled unanimously that Congress, when it apologized to the state for the government's role in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, did not strip Hawaii of its authority to sell or transfer land ceded to the federal government at statehood.

When the monarchy fell, the Republic of Hawaii transferred all "crown lands," or land formerly held by the Hawaiian monarchy, to the United States. The government then gave back the land when Hawaii entered the union in 1959. The United States said Hawaii could use or sell the ceded land, so long as the proceeds were used to benefit Hawaiian citizens.

In 1993, Congress enacted a joint resolution "to acknowledge the historic significance of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, to express its deep regret to the Native Hawaiian people, and to support the reconciliation efforts of the State of Hawaii and the United Church of Christ with Native Hawaiians."

The official acknowledgement, dubbed the Apology Resolution, states that "the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims ... over their national lands to the United States."

In the case decided Tuesday, the Housing Finance and Development Corporation (HFDC), Hawaii's affordable housing agency, received approval to redevelop a tract of former crown land known as the Leiali'i parcel. In order to transfer the property out of public trust, the agency had to pay the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and include a disclaimer preserving any native Hawaiian claims to ownership. The office relied on the Apology Resolution when making the latter demand.

The HFDC refused to make the disclaimer, prompting the office to sue the state, its governor, and the HFDC and its officials. The office demanded an injunction stopping them from selling or transferring the land pending resolution of native Hawaiians' claims.

The state trial court ruled for the state, but the Hawaii Supreme Court vacated the ruling and issued the requested injunction. Based on their interpretation of the Apology Resolution, the state-court justices held that "Congress has clearly recognized that the native Hawaiian people have unrelinquished claims over the ceded lands."

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

"The Apology Resolution reveals no indication - much less a 'clear and manifest' one - that Congress intended to amend or repeal the State's rights and obligations under Admission Act (or any other federal law)," Justice Alito wrote, "nor does the Apology Resolution reveal any evidence that Congress intended ... to 'cloud' the title that the United States held in 'absolute fee' and transferred to the State in 1959."

Alito added that the resolution would "raise grave constitutional concerns" if it clouded Hawaii's title to the land more than three decades after the state's admission to the union.

The justices reversed the injunction against the housing agency.

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