March 31, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

On March 31, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, No. 07-1372.

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, the United States annexed the territory of Hawaii and took an "absolute fee" interest in all public, government and crown lands. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the United States granted to the state all of the public lands that had been held by the United States. Finally, in 1993, Congress' joint Apology Resolution apologized for the country's role in overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy. Respondent Office of Hawaiian Affairs argued that the Apology Resolution restricted the state of Hawaii's ability to sell the land it had received from the United States.

A unanimous Supreme Court held that the Apology Resolution of 1993 did not strip the state of Hawaii of its authority to alienate land to which the United States previously held title and then transferred to Hawaii. First, the Court held that it possessed jurisdiction to decide the case because, although the decision of the Hawaii State Supreme Court referred to state law, its basis for decision was an interpretation of the federal Apology Resolution. On the merits, the Court applied a strict textual approach, buttressed by canons of interpretation, to hold that neither the text of the resolution's substantive provisions nor the 37 "whereas" clauses stripped Hawaii of its sovereign authority to alienate its public lands.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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