Hawaii is unique among the 50 states in that our state constitution has a precedent that ensures the protection of certain values.

As a state, Hawaii has since gone through significant changes, but it has forgotten the values that the 1978 Constitutional Convention aimed to protect.

But a look back at history gives a better understanding of why our state constitution is important.

In many of his speeches, Hawaii’s former Gov. John A. Burns quoted President Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the general progress of the human mind.” This demonstrates Jefferson’s, and Burns’, strong belief that a government that is empowered by the people progresses along with society over time.

Hawaii State Capitol PF

Hawaii State Capitol.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat


Jefferson and Burns believed that law and liberty are best maintained in small groups. This explains why every state created their own laws and ratified state constitutions separate from those of the federal government.

After Hawaii became a state in 1959, major social movements challenged the political structure of Hawaii’s state constitution. The Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which emerged during the 1970s, advocated for the involvement of more Hawaiians and other ethnic groups in government.

As a result, 74 percent of the electorate voted in the 1976 elections to convene a Constitutional Convention, which occurred two years later. During the 1978 Constitutional Convention, 102 delegates (including my relative, the late Hawaii state Senator Anthony “Tony” Chang) debated a range of proposed constitutional amendments.

When I interviewed a legislator who was a delegate at the convention, it became clear to me that many of those delegates were young, idealistic and eager to make a positive change. In total, 36 amendments to the Hawaii State Constitution were ratified with the intention of engaging people of many ethnicities in government, as well as of respecting values of individuals and protecting the environment.

But, since 1978, Hawaii’s Legislature has not given voters the option to call for the convening of a new Constitutional Convention.

However, issues that were addressed during the 1978 convention continue to divide the state today.

One example is the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which was created to ensure the betterment of the Hawaiian community. During this past legislative session, OHA proposed to develop its land in Kakaako for residential development as a way to increase revenue.

A great deal of written testimony was submitted by members of the Hawaiian community in support of OHA’s proposal, and testifiers waited outside packed rooms to support OHA. This seemed ironic in light of the results of the 1978 convention because OHA’s proposal to develop the land conflicts with the environmental protection rights that were advanced in 1978.

The office’s proposal does seem consistent with current environmental laws but it undermines the greater intent of the Constitutional Convention to ensure that Hawaii’s natural beauty is protected for future generations.

Building condos along the ocean would be disappointing, considering the work by delegates at the Constitutional Convention to put in place laws to ensure this consensus.

If the laws of the constitution are supposed to correlate with the progress of society, then actions are needed to protect this progress.

The laws are being followed accordingly, but their intent is being forgotten today.

Perhaps, another Constitutional Convention or “Con Con” needs to convene to recognize a new consensus of values.

About the Author

  • Kendrick Chang
    Kendrick Chang is a senior at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and grew up in East Oahu. At GWU, he is a political communication major in the School of Media and Public Affairs and president of the Hawaii Club. He is also a youth advisor for the Livable Hawaii Kai Hui and a member of the Save Ka Iwi Coalition and the Hawaii Kai Lions Club.