Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

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Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 25, 2009
Decided March 31, 2009
Full case name Hawaii, et al., Petitioners v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, et al.
Docket nos. 07-1372
Citations 556 U.S. 163 (more)
Opinion announcement Opinion announcement
Supreme Court of Hawaii reversed and remanded
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · David Souter
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Case opinions
Majority Alito, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Newlands Resolution, Hawaii Admission Act, Apology Resolution

Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 556 U.S. 163 (2009), was a United States Supreme Court case about the former crown lands of the Hawaiian monarchy, and whether the state's right to sell them was restricted by the 1993 Apology Resolution. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, ruled unanimously that the state had the power to sell the lands free of encumbrances.


In 1893, a "Committee of Safety," in co-operation with United States minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens, overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii and established a provisional government. The resulting Republic of Hawaii governed the islands until 1898, when the United States granted their proposal for annexation. Under the Newlands Resolution, the Republic of Hawaii "'cede[d] absolutely and without reserve to the United States of America all rights of sovereignty of whatsoever kind' and further 'cede[d] and transfer[red] to the United States the absolute fee and ownership of all public, Government, or Crown lands ... and all other public property of every kind and description belonging to the Government of the Hawaiian Islands.' The Newlands Resolution further provided that all 'property and rights' in the ceded lands 'are vested in the United States of America.'"[1]

The Hawaiian Organic Act established a territorial government for Hawaii in 1900. In the Organic Act, Congress provided that "The portion of the public domain heretofore known as Crown land is hereby declared to have been, on [1898], and prior thereto, the property of the Hawaiian government, and to be free and clear from any trust of or concerning the same, and from all claim of any nature whatsoever, upon the rents, issues, and profits thereof. It shall be subject to alienation and other uses as may be provided by law."[1] In 1959, Hawaii was admitted as a state by the Hawaii Admission Act. In that Act, Congress transferred title to most of the former Crown lands to the state, including the parcel at issue in this case.[1]

In 1993, the United States Congress adopted the Apology Resolution, in which the United States apologized for its role in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. Shortly thereafter, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) sought to enjoin a residential development on a parcel of land owned by the state that was held in trust for Native Hawaiians and the general public. OHA also requested that the Housing Finance and Development Corporation (HFDC - the state agency in charge of the parcel's development) certify that any transfer of the parcel's ownership would not diminish Native Hawaiians' claims to the land and include a disclaimer to that effect. The HFDC refused, believing that such a disclaimer would render it impossible for future owners to obtain title insurance. HFDC sent OHA a check for the land. OHA refused to accept the payment.

Procedural history[edit]

OHA filed suit in state court. The trial court held in favor of HFDC. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Hawaii reversed and held that the Apology Resolution changed the legal relationships of the parties and issued an injunction against development of the land until the state of Hawaii reconciled with Native Hawaiians. The state appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 2008.



Did the Apology Resolution bar the State of Hawaii from selling land held in public trust to third parties until the claims of Native Hawaiians to those lands were resolved?

Parties' arguments[edit]

The OFA argued that the Apology Resolution changed the relationship between Native Hawaiians and the government, restoring rights lost in the 1893 revolution. The State disagreed, arguing that language was intended only as an apology, with no changes in law being effected.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous Court, reversed the Hawaii Supreme Court's ruling, holding that the Apology Resolution did not create any new right, nor did it change the relationship between the State and the Native Hawaiian community. The Apology uses only conciliatory words, which Congress does not use to create substantive rights. While the Resolution does state that it does not serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States, a disclaimer of settling claims against one sovereign (the United States) cannot be read to affirmatively recognize claims against another (the State of Hawaii.)


After the decision, HFDC continued to develop the parcel, which will be called the Leiali'i Affordable Housing Project. It is expected to be complete by 2016.[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 129 S. Ct. 1436, 1440.
  2. ^ Staff (December 27, 2012). "Maui's Villages of Leialii affordable housing project gets EIS approval". Pacific Business News.