U.S. Supreme Court overturns ruling preventing the sale of ceded lands

Mark Bennett
Mark Bennett
Haunani Apoliona
Haunani Apoliona
Sherry Broder
Sherry Broder

By Leland Kim -


WASHINGTON, D.C. (KHNL) - The U.S. Supreme Court overturned on Monday a Hawaii Supreme Court decision that prevented the sale of approximately 1.2 million acres of land.  The ceded lands property was under the state's control ever since Hawaii became a state in 1959.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said the state had the authority to sell or transfer ceded lands despite a congressional apology to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of their kingdom in 1893.

It's a polarizing issue to say the least.  It's a day where both the state and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) are claiming victory.  The state says Tuesday's ruling makes it absolutely clear that the state has the title to the disputed lands free and clear.  But OHA says it is confident the Hawaii Supreme Court will rule in their favor once again.

It's been a controversial issue, pitting native Hawaiian groups against Gov. Linda Lingle (R-Hawaii).  At stake are approximately a quarter of the land in the entire state.  The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling reverses a decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court which prevented the state from selling ceded lands.

"The Supreme Court made absolutely clear that the apology resolution did not in any way cloud Hawaii's absolute title to its sovereign lands more than three decades after statehood," said Mark Bennett, state of Hawaii's attorney general.

But OHA is not convinced.

"But as a result of a review of this decision, as we're saying now, it's not over," said Haunani Apoliona, OHA board of trustees chairperson.  "Even though the early people, the six o'clock risers said, it's over. It's not over."

OHA is hoping that the Hawaii Supreme Court will once again, rule that the state cannot sell ceded lands.

They're hoping the courts will continue to be empathetic to those who seek redress for past wrongs.

"They look to what happened to the Japanese Americans during World War II and their internment and said, there was redress for Japanese Americans and congress did pass a law for that," said Sherry Broder, an attorney for OHA.

But Bennett, again, says the highest court in the land could not have been any clearer in its ruling.

"I think the court could not have said it any more clearly," he said. "That the state owns fee simple absolute title and that is as we had argued, a matter of federal law."

Gov. Lingle has no plans to sell any of the ceded lands, but the state wants the opportunity to exercise that option.

"The state of Hawaii through its admission act holds the absolute fee simple to the public trust lands for the benefit of all the citizens of Hawaii, including native Hawaiians," he said.

"Tomorrow's another day," said Apoliona.  "It's coming back to the state Supreme Court. We're not done."

It may take almost a month for the case to come back to the Hawaii Supreme Court. The state says it will make its case again on stronger legal footing.  But OHA still hopes the Hawaii Supreme Court will rule in their favor.