Hawaiian Laws Discriminatory?

Harold "Freddy" Rice sees his family as a microcosm of the islands' racially mixed population: Diverse, but not always equal.

Born and raised on the islands, Rice is a white rancher whose great-grandfather was governor of Kauai under the last island queen, Lili`uokalani. In Hawaii's melting pot, two of his grandchildren are considered Hawaiian and are therefore eligible for special state and federal benefits. Three are not.

"What do I tell my grandchildren, that some of them are different? Some are privileged, some need assistance, some can't go to (Hawaiians-only) Kamehameha Schools?" Rice said. "When you see it in your own family it becomes real obvious."

For the last three years, Rice has been challenging a state law giving Hawaiians special race-based voting privileges.

On Wednesday, the 62-year-old rancher will break from tending cattle on his Big Island spread to listen to arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Across the country, the arguments have drawn the attention of those on either side of the debate involving minority groups and affirmative action.

"The potential implications could be great for all native peoples in the United States," said Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii constitutional law professor. "There's not much logic in differentiating Native Americans from native Hawaiians. So if Hawaiians can't be given special rights, it would be hard to justify them for other Native Americans."

Briefs in support of the state have been filed by the National Congress of American Indians, the Alaska Native Federation, the Justice Department, and Alabama, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Supporting Rice were Robert Bork, the conservative commentator and former Supreme Court nominee, and The Campaign for a Color-Blind America, a Texas-based organization that has backed legal challenges of voting districts drawn on racial lines.

At issue are elections held by the quasi-state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, established in 1978 to run a $300 million trust that benefits the islands' estimated 200,000 residents of Hawaiian blood. The office oversees a wide variety of economic, social, health and education programs.

State law says only residents who descend from those islanders living here prior to 1778, when British Capt. James Cook made the first Western contact, can serve on the office's board of nine trustees, or vote in OHA elections.

About 20 percent of the state's population have some Hawaiian blood, according to the OHA.

After being denied a ballot to vote for the board, Rice sued Gov. Ben Cayetano, claiming the elections violate the 14th Amendment's guarantees of equal protection and the 15th Amendment's guarantees against racial discrimination.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra disagreed, saying Hawaiians enjoy a special trust relationship with the federal government that justifies the voting requirements. he 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concurred, saying the voting restriction "is not primarily racial, but legal and political."

Unlike American Indians, native Hawaiians are not a recognized tribe.

"The Supreme Court has provided Hawaiians with an opportunity to stand tall before this nation and demand our rights as the indigenous people of these islands," said OHA trustee chairwoman Rowena Akana.

To The Campaign for a Color-Blind America, an affirmation of the lower courts' rulings could lead to race-based elections in many other states.

"This case could lead to a deprivation of voting rights of large populations in a number of states if the declaration of a special relationship with a minority population is enough to justify racial discrimination in voting," said the group's Shannen Coffin.

The Clinton administration, which apologized to Hawaiians in 1993 for U.S. involvement in the illegal 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili`uokalani, is backing the state.