We received 1,700 donations and onboarded 725 new Civil Beat donors over the past six days! Our small nonprofit newsroom is grateful for your readership and support, especially during these uncertain times. Every little bit counts as we get closer to reaching our Summer Fundraising Campaign goal!
The lawsuit was filed in Circuit Court in Honolulu in February by the nonprofit, conservative Judicial Watch and the libertarian-leaning nonprofit Grassroot Institute of Hawaii after the two groups were not able to obtain the roll information through an open records request.
The roll commission, through its Kanaiolowalu campaign, seeks to reunify Native Hawaiians through a self-recognition movement. Hawaiians who are 18 years of age as of the date of an as yet unscheduled election will be eligible to participate in the organization of a governing entity.
The commission was established by the Hawaii Legislature in 2011. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a quasi-governmental agency tasked with protecting Hawaiian assets and empowering the state’s indigenous population, is funding the Kanaiolowalu campaign through state funds.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
In a related development, the Obama administration conducted hearings in the state last year to receive feedback on a possible government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and a Hawaiian government.
Organizations like the Grassroot Institute argue that the roll commission’s work will lead to a race-based sovereign government, something they argue is discriminatory. They claim that the commission has inflated the actual numbers of enrolled Hawaiians, from 40,000 to three times that number.
“Today, in a victory for open government, Judicial Watch won a case seeking a roll of over 125,000 people allegedly registered with the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission,” said Michael Lilly, a former Hawaii attorney general whose Honolulu law firm represented Judicial Watch.
In a related press release Thursday, Judicial Watch said that the Hawaii court ruled that the enrollment list “was a public record” and that the roll commission “had come up with no good reason for withholding it from Judicial Watch.”
According to the statement, the judge ordered the release of the voter roll “on a schedule to be approved in the next few days, and stressed that Hawaii’s open records laws were designed to foster wide and open discussion of matters of public importance.”
‘Big Commotion Over Nothing’
Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, the only governor with Hawaiian ancestry, downplayed the significance of the ruling in an interview with Civil Beat.
“The main thing is, it’s a big commotion over really nothing,” said Waihee, the roll commission’s chairman. “I don’t know what it all accomplished for the Grassroot Institute except they got political mileage somehow. But there’s nothing here. If somebody wants to know if they are registered or not, they can call the commission or go right to the website and put in a name. There is no attempt to hide anybody from anything.”
Waihee added that as much as 90 percent of the list had been made public last year at libraries and other locations throughout the state.
Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, second from right, shares a laugh with Sen. David Ige and supporters at Ige headquarters on primary election night 2014.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Grassroot’s president, Kelii Akina, disagrees with Waihee.
“If the information on the list was readily available, it would not have taken months of repeated requests and legal action in order to obtain it,” Akina told Civil Beat. “Like all voter records, the Native Hawaiian roll is a public list, which by law should be accessible to all members of the public.”
Kelii unsuccessfully sought a seat on the OHA board of trustees last year. In a candidate Q&A, he said that nation-building was “dividing Hawaiians from non-Hawaiians and Hawaiians from each other.”
Waihee, whose son is an OHA trustee, said the roll commission was waiting to receive the Circuit Court order before it takes any action.
“Once we get that, it’s going to take staff time and there will be a cost involved,” he said. “As soon as we can do it, they can have it.”
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues