HILO, Hawaii Island – A departing Hawaii County Council member has ramped up her recent bizarre behavior, restating publicly this week that she can no longer do her job because she’s afraid she’s committing “war crimes” against sovereign Native Hawaiians.
Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles is not the first unorthodox lawmaker to represent people who affectionately refer to themselves as “Punatics,” but she has become the most unique – or insightful, depending on one’s perspective.
First, Ruggles earlier this summer suddenly abandoned her bid for what likely would have been successful re-election to a second term representing the approximately 20,000 people who live in the 5th District of Upper Puna.
Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles says she’s still serving her constituency.
Courtesy of Jen Ruggles
Her departure in late July occurred after primary election ballots had been printed. Despite widespread reporting of her decision, Ruggles still tallied 443 votes, or more than 10 percent of those cast, in the three-way race, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections.
Ruggles, 29, has not said publicly why she withdrew, but at the time of her move vowed on her Facebook page that she would be “finishing strong” for the remainder of a two-year term that runs through Dec. 3.
But that strong finish may not involve Ruggles voting on council matters or even attending meetings. That’s because the daughter of noted marijuana activist Mike Ruggles said she fears performing her job could violate both U.S. and international law.
Welcome to the “Punaverse.”
Acting on the advice of her private attorney and dissatisfied with contrary claims from her council colleagues and Hawaii County’s top civil lawyer, Ruggles’ position stems from the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by U.S.-backed interests in 1893.
Ruggles has requested legal assurance that she won’t be committing “war crimes” “for legislating and being complicit in the collection of taxes, foreclosures, and criminal prosecutions that appeared to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution and international humanitarian law,” according to a lengthy statement she posted Tuesday on her private website.
“Until Corporation Counsel (Joe Kamelamela) provides … a proper legal opinion responding to the statement of facts, consistent with the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct, and the legal definition of assurance that I am not incurring criminal liability under U.S. law and international law, which includes the 1907 Hague Regulations and the 1949 Geneva Convention, IV, I painfully regret that I have been advised by my attorney (Stephen Laudig) that I must continue to refrain from legislating,” Ruggles said in her latest statement.
“I’m asking a legitimate question, and it deserves a legitimate response,” Ruggles told Civil Beat on Wednesday.
“I do believe I’m representing my community right now.” — Councilwoman Jen Ruggles
She feels Kamelamela, who has informed her he will not respond further because her attorney is not a county employee, is being negligent in his duties.
Ruggles did not indicate in the statement if she also will refrain from cashing her taxpayer-financed paychecks. Starting last January, council members’ wages were boosted 35 percent to $70,008 per year, courtesy of the county Salary Commission.
“Right now, I have no choice (but to accept payment),” Ruggles said Wednesday, noting she has direct deposit into her bank account.
Also important to note is the legal separation of powers – a little Civics 101 if you will. In Hawaii County, the nine-member council serves as the legislative branch of local government, with its main function being to set policy, including fiscal policy by passing yearly operating and construction budgets.
The council’s powers don’t include the collection of property and other taxes or conducting property foreclosures. Those powers, along with police functions, fall to the administrative branch. And then there’s criminal prosecutions that come under the jurisdiction of an elected prosecutor and his office, which serves as the local judiciary or third branch of government.
In an Aug. 22 letter, Kamelamela informed Ruggles that “you will not incur any criminal liability under state, federal and international law” for performing legislative duties. Kamelamela, himself a Native Hawaiian, referred Ruggles to the U.S. Constitution, adding “international law cannot violate federal law.”
Ruggles fired back, claiming her own lawyer has determined Kamelamela’s short response was wrong and “inconsistent” with Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct requiring attorneys to provide “competent handling of a particular matter,” including “an inquiry into and analysis of the factual and legal elements of the problem.”
In support of her unique position, Ruggles points to a Feb. 25 letter Dr. Alfred M. deZayas, a United Nations independent expert with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote to the Hawaii Judiciary. (According to that organization’s website, an “independent expert” is an unpaid person appointed by the Human Rights Council to “examine and report on a specific human rights issue or theme.”)
In his letter, deZayas wrote that “he has come to understand” that Hawaii is a “nation-state that is under a strange form of occupation by the United States resulting from an illegal military occupation and fraudulent annexation.” Because of this status, the governing laws must be those of the “occupied state, in this case the Hawaiian Kingdom,” he wrote.
Ruggles’ position also got some support Wednesday from Kalamaoka’aina Niheu, who has participated in the Pacific Caucus at the United Nations and served as the medical officer on the Hokulea sailing canoe.
“I think this is something that is being raised as a very legitimate question,” said Niheu, adding that Ruggles is the first Hawaii lawmaker she’s aware of who has raised the sovereignty issue.
“The vast majority of people don’t take this into consideration,” Niheu said.
Ruggles said she will continue serving her community in many ways, including trying to obtain federal disaster-relief money following last week’s flooding and addressing “tax discrimination” involving people assessed the minimum $200 annual property tax, which was raised recently despite her lone objection.
“I do believe I’m representing my community right now,” she said.
Ruggles announced that she “will be holding a town hall meeting on this issue shortly, and as always, welcome our constituents’ concerns, questions, and ideas on any issue. I am available to them and will continue to work hard in providing transparency and accountability in government.”
She said she was still making arrangements Wednesday afternoon and had not set a date or venue for the meeting.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Will you help us?
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, investigative journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?
Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at email@example.com