In the debate with Mazie Hirono on Oct. 16, Linda Lingle emphasized her commitment to the Native Hawaiian community.

“I never sold an acre of ceded land during my time in office,” Lingle said.

Lingle was referring to the more than 1.8 million acres of land that once belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy. When the islands were annexed, the crown lands were ceded to the U.S. federal government. The land was then placed into a trust with specific conditions, including improving the lives of Native Hawaiians.

By saying that she didn’t sell any ceded land, Lingle was defending herself against criticism of her record on Native Hawaiian issues.

But is there more to the story?

When Lingle became governor in 2002, the state had been embroiled for several years in a lawsuit against the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) about the state’s right to sell ceded lands.

The lawsuit started in 1994 when former Gov. John Waihee attempted to sell ceded land to develop affordable housing. Developing home ownership is one of the five conditions of the land use in addition to improving life for Native Hawaiians.

OHA argued that the state couldn’t sell the property until Native Hawaiians’ claims to it were resolved. The state maintained that it has the right to sell public lands, including ceded land.

In December 2002, Judge Sabrina McKenna from the Hawaii Circuit Court ruled in favor of the state. OHA appealed the decision to Hawaii’s highest court.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of OHA in 2008, saying that the state couldn’t sell ceded lands until Native Hawaiian property claims were resolved. The basis for the ruling was that Congress’s 1993 Apology Resolution — which acknowledged Native Hawaiians’ claims to justice — changed the terms of the 1959 Admission Act which originally ceded the land.

In response, the Lingle administration appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite pleas from the Legislature and OHA to drop the case, the administration pressed on.

Mark Bennett, Lingle’s attorney general, said that the administration appealed because of the far-reaching implications of the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision.

“When Congress gives the state land as part of the Admission Act… it’s up to the state to decide what to do with it,” he said. “Congress doesn’t have the right to go back to change its mind.”

Thirty-two U.S. states supported the state of Hawaii’s appeal, as well as the federal government.

According to a statement published in Hawaii 24/7 in January 2009, Lingle said that unlike Waihee she had no plans to sell the land:

“We don’t have any intention of going out and selling ceded lands. That’s not the purpose of this case. The purpose is to protect for all the people of Hawaii those lands that were given to us as a state back in 1959 and were set aside for these five purposes, including affordable housing, farming, public use, and the betterment of native Hawaiian people.”

The high court unanimously overturned the state’s ruling in March 2009 and returned the case to the state for a new decision.

Four months later, Lingle signed a new law requiring the governor to obtain the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature in order to sell ceded land.

Members of the Native Hawaiian community praised the law, which the Honolulu Advertiser called “a compromise” among key players in the lawsuit.

The new law rendered the case moot, Bennett said, so the state Supreme Court dismissed it.

Peter Young, Lingle’s first director of the Department of Land and Natural Resource, told Civil Beat that he could not recall a sale of an acre of ceded land during his term.

“I don’t remember ever any sale of a larger parcel of ceded land,” said Young, who served from 2003-2007.

But Young said that there were sales of smaller parcels of land.

“Every now and then there were sales of lands that were called remnants — small slivers of non-usable land,” he said. He gave the example of residents who owned property adjoining a road.

“Sometimes there were road remnants that were sold in little chunks,” Young said. “Each property owner had the right to buy that section that was in front.”

In addition to sales of remnants, Young said that there were intergovernmental transfers of ceded land and leasing of small parcels.

BOTTOM LINE: During Lingle’s term as governor, she did not sell an acre of ceded land. But she did advocate to give the state the right to sell ceded land and sold non-usable parcels of land. Given that Lingle’s statement contains elements of truth as well as missing information, Civil Beat finds her statement to be MOSTLY TRUE.

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