HONOLULU – The Issue: A Circuit Court judge has ruled that beneficiaries of the Hawaiian homestead program have a right to sue the state for breach of trust.
Our View: The decision could force the state to deal with claims for compensation.
A Circuit Court ruling could spur the state to stop stalling on Hawaiian homestead claims rather than face the claimants in court. The state may appeal the ruling by Judge Victoria Marks, but if it is upheld the claimants’ position will be substantially strengthened.
Marks ruled that three beneficiaries of the Hawaiian homestead program and a proposed group of 2,721 Hawaiian beneficiaries have a right to sue the state for breach of trust. Because the state abolished a panel that reviewed claims of breaches of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust, Marks ruled, the plaintiffs were entitled to seek compensation through t he courts.
Thomas Grande, an attorney representing the beneficiaries, said it was the first time in 80 years that beneficiaries of the trust will have the right to have their day in court. The decision, he said, shows that the state is not above the law.
A state panel established to determine what compensation was owed to beneficiaries received more than 4,000 claims by an August 1995 deadline. By 1999, the panel had issued advisory opinions on 47 percent of the claims, totaling about $60 million in damages. However, the Legislature acted on only two of those claims, leaving more than 2,700 claimants uncompensated.
The 1999 legislature passed a bill that would have extended the deadline for the panel to continue reviewing claims and presenting them to the Legislature for action, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Cayetano.
The claimants contend – reasonably enough – that the state created a “sham” process designed to prevent them from receiving compensation. What other conclusion could be drawn from the state setting up a panel to consider claims, then refusing to honor the awards?
There are at last report about 19,000 names on the waiting list for homestead or agricultural lots under the homestead program. Only 6,000 beneficiaries have been awarded lots in the 80 years since Congress passed the Hawaiian homelands act.
The failure of the state and before it the territory to implement the homestead program adequately is one of the scandals of Hawaii history.
Although some of the contentions of Hawaiian activists are questionable, there is no doubt that promised made in the homelands act have not been kept. If the state does not wish to answer the beneficiaries in court, it had better get busy on those claims.