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Opinion Recap: Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Stanford student Patrick Nemeroff discusses the Court’s decision in No. 07-1372. Additional information is available on SCOTUSwiki, here.

On Tuesday, March 31st, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion in Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, reversing the Hawaii Supreme Court’s holding that the federally enacted Apology Resolution bars the State of Hawaii from selling to third parties any land held in public trust until the claims of native Hawaiians to the lands have been resolved. The Court first held that it has jurisdiction to review the Hawaii Supreme Court’s opinion because it rested on the Apology Resolution. It then found the Hawaii Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Apology Resolution to be erroneous, and held that federal law does not bar the State from selling land held in public trust. Accordingly, it remanded the case for the Hawaii Supreme Court to determine if Hawaiian law alone supports the same outcome.

Justice Alito, writing for the Court, first rejected respondents’ argument that the Court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case because the decision below rested on adequate and independent state grounds. Justice Alito relied on Michigan v. Long, which held that the Court has jurisdiction so long as the “the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion.” Because the Hawaii Supreme Court opinion lacked a plain statement that it rested solely on state law, and instead explicitly relied on the Apology Resolution multiple times, the Court had “no doubt that the decision below rested on federal law,” and, thus, that it had jurisdiction to review the Hawaii Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal law.

Justice Alito then addressed the Apology Resolution, concluding that it does not strip the State of its sovereign authority to sell the lands granted to the State when it was admitted into the Union. First, Justice Alito concluded that neither of the two substantive provisions of the Apology Resolution justifies the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision. The first substantive provision uses only conciliatory or precatory verbs, not the type of terms that Congress uses to create substantive rights. The second substantive provision merely provides that the Apology Resolution does not serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States. A disclaimer of settling claims against one sovereign, the United States, cannot be read to affirmatively recognize claims against another, the State of Hawaii.

Next, Justice Alito turned to the 37 “whereas” clauses that preface the Apology Resolution, which make various observations about Hawaii’s history. Justice Alito concluded that those clauses do not serve as a congressional recognition of native Hawaiians’ unrelinquished claims to the land for three reasons. First, as the Court explained in Heller, such preambles do not enlarge the meaning of the substantive provisions of an act, and should only be relied on where necessary to resolve ambiguities in the act itself. Second, the Hawaii Supreme Court’s reading of the Apology Resolution would effectively repeal the Admission Act, which ceded the lands at issue to the State. But the “whereas” clauses contain no plain statement of such an intent, and repeals by implication are disfavored. Third, the Apology Resolution would raise grave constitutional concerns if it were read to cloud Hawaii’s title to its sovereign land after Hawaii was granted statehood. Therefore, the canon of constitutional avoidance dictates that the Court should look to competing plausible interpretations that do not raise such concerns.

Recognizing that respondents defend the decision below on state-law grounds, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings in light of its interpretation of the Apology Resolution.