Hawaii State Government

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Hawaii’s governing structure has evolved from disconnected tribes to a monarchy to a republic to a U.S. territory to a state. During World War II, it was also under martial law. That evolution can be traced through a series of governing documents and key events.


The first version of Hawaii’s constitution was enacted by Kamehameha III for the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1840. It organized the government and its functions as a constitutional monarchy with a ruling king and democratic principles such as a bicameral legislature with a House of Nobles and a House of Representatives.

Twelve years later, prompted by legislative action that called for a review of the previous Constitution of 1840 to account for the modernization of Hawaiian society, Kamehameha III ratified a new version of the constitution. Perhaps the greatest change in society had been the Great Mahele of 1848, which re-distributed land ownership in Hawaii from a semi-feudal system to private ownership. The 1852 constitution was almost entirely different from its predecessor and reduced the power of the monarch. It gave universal suffrage to all men and gave the king the authority to appoint members of the Hall of Nobles for life.

Previously, membership in the House of Nobles was based on heredity. This constitution also allowed for more checks and balances on the king – following the American model – and separated the legislative, judicial and executive branches of the government.

In 1864, Kamehameha V rewrote the Constitution of 1852 in an attempt to increase the power of the monarch. His constitution made literacy and property ownership requirements for voting. During this time, Hawaii had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. The Constitution of 1864 eliminated the need for the king to consult the nobles. Furthermore, it changed the legislature from bicameral to unicameral, requiring that the House of Representatives and Nobles meet as one body, known as the Legislative Assembly.

The Constitution of 1887 is also known as the “Bayonet Constitution.” The Missionary Party and Honolulu Rifle Company used force to coerce King David Kalakaua to agree to sign the document and strip himself of power. It was written by Lorrin A. Thurston, a lawyer who published the Pacific Commercial Advertiser — a newspaper that was the predecessor to The Honolulu Advertiser. This constitution made the monarch a figurehead and barred Asian people from citizenship. It allowed only American, European and Native Hawaiian men the right to vote, as long as they met age, literacy and property ownership requirements.

Overthrow Through Statehood

The Constitution of 1893 was written by Queen Liliuokalani in an attempt to restore the power of the crown. The result was the opposite. The document was never signed into law, but it led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and Kingdom of Hawaii. A group of annexationists led by Thurston fabricated a story that Americans were under attack in Hawaii. They asked U.S. Department of State Minister John L. Stevens to land American troops in Honolulu to settle the “false” unrest. On January 17, 1893, Marines from the USS Boston, Thurston and the Committee of Safety succeeded in overthrowing Queen Liliuokalani and the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The Constitution of 1894 was enacted by the Provisional Government of Hawaii, which would later become the Republic of Hawaii. The Republic of Hawaii named Sanford B. Dole as its first president. The United States declined to annex Hawaii, much to the dismay of Thurston and Committee of Safety members. U.S. President Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and sent James H. Blount to investigate the situation in Hawaii. After receiving Blount’s report, Cleveland wrote an important letter to the U.S. Congress condemning what had happened. Under President William McKinley, Hawaii became a U.S. territory on July 7, 1898, with the signing of the Newlands Resolution. Congress approved the Hawaiian Organic Act on April 30, 1900, establishing the government structure for Hawaii as a territory.

In 1950, the Territory of Hawaii adopted a constitution in order to set up the framework for Hawaii to become a U.S. state. On August 25, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state and its constitution was ratified to reflect statehood.

The State of Hawaii Constitution has been amended numerous times, but the most noteworthy change occurred in the Constitutional Convention of 1978. That event was monumental in the modern history of Hawaii because it attempted to rectify injustices that had persisted since 1893, when the Hawaiian monarchy was usurped. Among the results of the convention were the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the return of federal lands, such as Kahoolawe, which had been used for military bombing practices. The convention also established Hawaiian as one of Hawaii’s official languages along with English; it was the first time since 1893 that Hawaiian had been formally recognized.

Recent Developments

In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the Apology Resolution into law. Officially titled United States Public Law 103-150, this Congressional joint resolution formally acknowledged that Native Hawaiians and the monarchy did not voluntarily relinquish their claims to sovereignty and self-determination to the United States and encouraged reconciliation between the U.S. government and Native Hawaiians.

The Apology Resolution laid the groundwork for the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act of 2009 (S10011/HR2314) that has become known as the Akaka Bill, a nine-year effort to provide redress to Native Hawaiians. The latest version has been passed by the House of Representatives and is awaiting approval by the Senate. While President Obama, who was born in Hawaii and still has close ties to the islands, supports the measure, it faces challenges in clearing the Senate because of the lack of support from Republican senators. The bill is also opposed by Gov. Linda Lingle, who had long supported the bill but changed her mind in 2010 after language in the bill was changed that Lingle said would exempt a Native Hawaiian governing entity from state and county laws.

Named after Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D), the Akaka Bill bill aims to federally recognize Native Hawaiians as indigenous people similar to Native Americans and Alaskans. The bill has been heavily criticized for nearly a decade both by some of those opposed to Hawaiian sovereignty and by some advocates of Native Hawaiian rights.

Governance in the Modern Era

Under the current state constitution, Hawaii’s government is organized into three branches: Executive, Judicial and Legislative. It also has a number of governmental agencies, separate governing structures for the University of Hawaii system and Hawaii Department of Education, and a workforce that is largely drawn from four public sector labour unions. While detailed contact information for key government offices is listed below, the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs directory is very useful.

Executive Branch

The Executive Branch consists of the governorlieutenant governor and attorney general. The governor and lieutenant governor run on a joint ticket and serve a maximum of two, four-year terms. The governor does not choose his or her lieutenant governor. The victor of a party primary joins the ticket. Article V of the constitution outlines the duties and power of the governor and lieutenant governor.

In July 2008, Hawaii’s governor was to receive a salary of $123,480, according to the Sunshine Review, while the lieutenant governor was to earn $120,444. But in December 2008, Governor Lingle called for salary increase suspensions in light of the state’s growing budget deficit.

The attorney general is appointed by the governor, and is the state’s highest legal and law enforcement officer. The attorney general advises all three branches of state government in legal matters, advocates for the rights and freedoms of Hawaii residents, and prosecutes criminal violations to Hawaii Revised Statutes. In the absence of the governor and lieutenant governor, the attorney general acts as the chief executive of the state.


On Dec. 6, 2010, Democrat Neil Abercrombie will be sworn into office as Hawaii’s governor, replacing Republican Linda LingleBrian Schatz will replace James “Duke” Aiona as lieutenant governor.

The following departments are part of the executive branch:

Other important state agencies include the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state’s official agency for promoting tourism, and the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates public service companies.

The tourism authority, administratively attached to the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, is funded by a set percentage of the transient accommodations tax levied on hotel and other guests. The HTA is administratively attached to the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism.

The utilities commission regulates public service companies, approves tariffs, rates and fees, and acts on requests for sales and acquisitions of utility properties. The commission is housed under the state Department of Budget and Finance.

Legislative Branch

The Hawaii State Legislature consists of two houses: the Senate and House of Representatives. The Senate has 25 elected members and the House has 51. Senators serve four-year terms while representatives serve two-year terms. Currently, the Democratic Party controls the majority in the Senate and House. There are 23 Democrats and two Republicans in the Senate. There are 45 Democrats and six Republicans in the House.

Lawmakers received a 36 percent raise in 2008, raising their salaries from $35,900 to $48,708 annually. They also received a legislative allowance increase from $7,500 to $10,200. The allowances, according to state law, are “reasonably related to expenses.” The Senate president and House speaker saw their pay rise from $43,400 to $56,208. The increases, which were approved by the state Salary Commission, went into effect in 2009.

The Legislature is responsible for appointing the state auditor, whose office was established to evaluate the performance of state agencies, departments and offices to ensure accountability. The auditor reports its findings and recommendations to the governor and the Legislature, which often directs the office to make investigations.

Learn more about how a bill becomes law in Hawaii here and see a flowchart of how it works.

Judicial Branch

The Hawaii State Judiciary is comprised of the supreme court, intermediate court of appeals, land court, tax appeal court, circuit courts, family courts and district courts. In special circumstances the legislature may also form courts. The Hawaii Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. The governor appoints Supreme Court justices from a list of four to six candidates from the Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission with the consent of the Senate.

The Hawaii Rules of Court explain the various jurisdictions in detail.

The Supreme Court is the “state’s highest court [and] makes binding decisions over appeals from the lower courts upon transfer from the Intermediate Court of Appeals and cases eligible to be heard directly by the Hawaii Supreme Court. Also responsible for court rules, licensing and disciplining attorneys.” It is comprised of a chief justice and four associate justices. A justice is appointed to a 10-year term and may not serve past the age of 70. The chief justice made a salary of $181,476 in 2008. Associate justices earned $174,984.

The Intermediate Court of Appeals is the “state’s second highest court that reviews appeals from state trial court or agency decisions. Its decisions, under certain circumstances, are subject to the Hawaii Supreme Court’s review.”

Circuit Courts “rule in all jury trial cases. General jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases. Exclusive jurisdiction in probate, guardianship and criminal felony cases, as well as civil cases where the contested amount exceeds $20,000. Concurrent jurisdiction with District Courts in civil non-jury cases that specify amounts between $10,000-$20,000.”

District Courts have “exclusive jurisdiction over traffic infractions and landlord-tenant disputes, and non-jury trial civil cases where the contested amount is under $10,000. Also civil cases where claim does not exceed $20,000, criminal offenses punishable by fine or by imprisonment not exceeding one year, county-ordinance cases, and petitions for restraining orders.

Family Courts “rule in all legal matters involving children, such as delinquency, waiver, status offenses, abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, adoption, guardianships and detention. Also hears traditional domestic-relations cases, including divorce, nonsupport, paternity, uniform child custody jurisdiction cases and miscellaneous custody matters.”

Land Court is a “statewide court of record with exclusive jurisdiction of all applicants for the registration of title to land and easements or rights in land held and possessed.” Hawaii and Massachusetts are the only two states with a Land Court. Exclusive jurisdiction of the Land Court extends to land titles, rights, easements and other land-related legal matters, such as public shoreline access and Native Hawaiian gathering rights.

The Tax Appeal Court is a “statewide court of record with exclusive jurisdiction over disputes concerning property, excise, liquor, tobacco, income, and insurance taxes, among others.”

Related State Agencies

Land Use Commission

The Hawaii Land Use Commission (LUC) makes decisions on boundary petitions from developers, landowners, and state and county agencies. State law is zoned into urban, rural, agricultural, and conservation districts. The commission is part of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism for administrative purposes, according to HRS 205; four of the commission’s nine members are appointed by the counties, and the remainder are appointed at large “provided that one member shall have substantial experience or expertise in traditional Hawaiian land usage and knowledge of cultural land practices.”

State Ethics Commission

The Hawaii State Ethics Commission administers and enforces Hawaii government ethics and lobbying laws for all state officials except justices and judges.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is a semi-autonomous government agency that is funded from revenues generated by ceded lands. Directed by nine elected trustees, this organization protects the interests of Native Hawaiians, Hawaii’s environmental resources and indigenous culture. OHA conducts many public and educational programs and media campaigns.

Ceded lands are properties that were owned by the monarchy before the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. When Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. in 1898, the federal government assumed control of the Ceded Lands. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the ceded lands were put into the trust of the state government. These lands are spread throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. The Honolulu International Airport and the University of Hawaii at Manoa are examples of public institutions built on ceded lands. Ceded lands are also called crown lands and public trust lands.

National Guard

The U.S. National Guard is a reserve military force drawn from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Housed under the Hawaii Department of Defense, the Guard is mobilized for active duty during emergencies and wars. The Public Affairs Office can be reached at (808) 733-4258.

State Elections Office

Hawaii’s State Elections Office is part of the Department of Accounting and General Services. The chief elections officer is appointed by the nine-member elections commission. Commission members are appointed by majority and minority party leaders in the state Legislature. Commissioners, who are unpaid but are reimbursed for necessary expenses, serve four-year terms.

In February 2010, Scott Nago, an elections office employee for 12 years, was named chief elections officer after serving in an interim capacity since the resignation of Kevin Cronin, whose performance had been criticized by county officials.

  • Contact: (808) 453-VOTE (8683)
  • E-mail: elections@hawaii.gov
  • Neighbor Island Toll-Free: (800) 442-VOTE (8683)

University of Hawaii System

The University of Hawaii system was established in 1907 as the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Honolulu. Today, under a new name, the university includes 10 campuses serving a total of more than 54,000 undergraduate and graduate students in more than 640 educational programs.

The university has an independent governing board, called the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. The 15 regents are nominated by a special council for that purpose, and then appointed by the Governor of the State of Hawaii and confirmed by the state legislature. The regents appoint a university president who is then responsible for carrying out the policies and standards issued by the board.

Hawaii Department of Education

The Hawaii Department of Education oversees public K-12 Education. The department’s governing body is the 14-member Hawaii State Board of Education, which is headed by a board-appointed superintendent. The board of education develops statewide educational policy, adopts student performance standards, evaluates school performance and appoints the State Superintendent of the Department of Education. The board’s powers are outlined in Article 10 of the Hawaii State Constitution. Learn more about Public K-12 Education In Hawaii on the education page.

State Government Budget

In the last 50 years, Hawaii has transitioned from an agricultural economy to one based on tourism, state and local government, and federal — especially military — spending. In 2009, the total value of goods and services (GDP) produced in Hawaii was $64 billion dollars, ranking Hawaii 27th among states.

Tourism is the state’s primary industry. Hawaii hosted 6.4 million visitors in 2009 – about 172,000 visitors a day. Roughly three-quarters of the visitors came from the mainland United States. Japan was the second largest source of visitors.2

See a more detailed explanation of Hawaii’s economy on the state budget page.

County Governments

Hawaii has four counties: the City and County of Honolulu, otherwise known as Oahu — it is the only Hawaii county that is a combined city-island; Maui County, which includes Molokai, Lanai and the unpopulated Kahoolawe; Kauai County, which includes Niihau;, and Hawaii County, aka the Big Island. There is also a fifth county, Kalawao, which is the isolated Kalaupapa Peninsula on Molokai’s north coast and is administered by the state Department of Health.

Hawaii’s counties are governed by separate charters: Revised Charter of Honolulu, Hawaii County Charter, Maui County Charter, and Kauai County Charter. Honolulu County government offices are located in downtown Honolulu and in Kapolei in West Oahu; Hawaii County offices are concentrated in Hilo on the east side of the island, though there are also offices in Kailua-Kona on the west side; Maui County offices are in Wailuku, and Kauai County offices are in Lihue.

Each county has an elected, nonpartisan mayor and Council. While they vary in structure, each county government has executive branch departments for areas such as transportation, civil defense, finance, public works, parks and recreation, water, and public safety. As well, each county has various boards and commissions such as a liquor commission and a board of water supply.

County Mayors:

County Councils:

  • The Honolulu City Council has nine members representing distinct island districts. The Council chair is Todd Apo: (808) 768-5001.
  • The Maui County Council has nine members elected on an at-large basis. The Council chair is Danny Mateo: (808) 270-7678.
  • The Kauai County Council has seven members and are elected at-large. The Council chair is Bill “Kaipo” Asing: (808) 241-4188.
  • The Hawaii County Council has nine members representing distinct island districts. The Council chair is J. Yoshimoto. Hilo Council Office: (808) 961-8225.

Federal Government in Hawaii

The federal government has a significant presence in Hawaii, in part because of its relative size to a small state like Hawaii but especially because of Hawaii’s military history and strategic presence for the United States. In 2008, the federal government employed 32,200 people and the federal Department of Defense employed 16,500; combined, that’s about 8 percent of the state’s total workforce.

Learn more about the federal government’s presence in Hawaii.

  1. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/streams.html  
  2. http://hawaii.gov/dbedt/info/economic/data_reports/qser/qser-2010q1.pdf  
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