Court rules in favor of Native Hawaiian homestead applicants

Court rules in favor of Native Hawaiian homestead applicants
Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (Source: Hawaii News Now/file)

HONOLULU (AP) — The Hawaii Supreme Court has issued a ruling on a Department of Hawaiian Homelands waiting list that could result in the state paying millions of dollars to beneficiaries.

The justices unanimously ruled Tuesday that the state’s conduct resulted in a growing list of Native Hawaiians waiting for homesteads, including some who died before the case was resolved.

The justices permitted a 1999 class-action lawsuit to proceed to the next stage, which includes calculating damages to be paid to plaintiffs.

About 2,700 applicants filed the lawsuit alleging breach of trust from the establishment of Hawaii’s statehood in 1959 until 1988.

Native Hawaiians are eligible to apply for 99-year leases at $1 per year for residential, ranching or farming leases on a land trust of 317 square miles (821 square kilometers) overseen by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The trust was created by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 to protect and improve the lives of Native Hawaiians, who are defined as having at least 50% Hawaiian ancestry.

About 10,000 homestead leases are in place, but the waiting list now tops more than 28,000 applicants.

In the time since the lawsuit was filed, 400 of the 2,700 plaintiffs have died, although their families can be compensated.

The court said the Hawaiian homelands department failed to manage and preserve trust property and maintain adequate records.

The justices wrote in their ruling that in 30 years “the state of Hawaii has done little to address the ever lengthening waitlist for lease awards of Hawaiian home lands.”

The justices upheld a lower court decision selecting a model for determining how to calculate damages through an administrative process, precluding the need to hold 2,700 individual trials.

The justices also eliminated what would have been a six-year grace period before damages started to accrue for applicants on the waiting list.

Carl Varady, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, called the decision “a monumental testament to justice as a general matter and fairness for Native Hawaiians in this process.”

The Department of the Attorney General said the state is reviewing the decision.

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