The state, in violation of the Hawaii Constitution, has failed to adequately fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, according to a unanimous ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“The State has failed, by any reasonable measure, under the undisputed facts, to provide sufficient funding to DHHL,” the court wrote in its opinion. “The State’s track record in supporting DHHL’s success is poor, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of qualified applicants on the waiting lists and the decades-long wait for homestead lots.”
The ruling ends a five-year court battle brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. on behalf of six Native Hawaiians from the Big Island.
The department is charged with developing and managing 200,000 acres of land for Native Hawaiians. It is one of three state departments that doesn’t receive general funds from the Legislature. Former Gov. Linda Lingle defunded the department during her term in office to save the state money.
The state argued that funding the department was optional. But the Supreme Court disagreed.
The decision was only a partial victory for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, however. The court’s ruling upheld an earlier intermediate appeals court decision that said the state’s funding of the operational costs of the department was insufficient. However, the ruling says that it is impossible to determine whether this is the case when it comes to covering the development costs of homestead lots.
The court said that the text of the Constitution and the 1978 constitutional convention history “shed no light on how many home, agriculture, farm and ranch lots must be developed in a certain period of time, so that what would constitute ‘sufficient sums’ to that end is not clear.”
Native Hawaiians with a blood quantum level of 50 percent or higher can qualify for the lands, which come with a 99 year lease at a cost of $1 per year.
The ruling does not indicate whether the state must allocate funds from this year’s budget for the department’s administrative expenses.
DHHL’s budget in fiscal year 2012 was $185 million, 85 percent of which comes from trust funds. The rest is from federal and special funds.
In 1920, Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which set aside the 200,000 acres of ceded lands for Native Hawaiian homesteads. But the federal government’s funding of the program was anemic for decades. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the federal government conveyed the land to the state, which was required to adopt the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act under its Constitution.
“Unfortunately, the State was not much more successful than the federal government in fulfilling its constitutional duties,” the Supreme Court said.
DHHL has resorted to leasing out its lands to commercial developers, such as Wal-Mart, which it has said is necessary to fund new homestead projects.
The state’s 1978 constitutional convention unsuccessfully sought to remedy this by requiring the Legislature to provide sufficient sums for carrying out the mission of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. It’s unclear whether this week’s court ruling will bring more money to the department for developing housing or agricultural lots.
Nonetheless, David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., was positive about the ruling, and said that his clients weren’t asking the court to specify a certain amount of funding, only that it rule that funding had been insufficient.
“It’s a victory for all beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust,” he said in a statement. “The underfunding or lack of funding has led to people dying on the wait list.”
He noted that two of his clients had passed away since the lawsuit was filed in 2007.
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