528 U.S. 495 (2000), argued 6 Oct. 1999, decided 23 Feb. 2000 by vote of 7 to 2; Kennedy for the Court, Breyer and Souter concurring, Stevens and Ginsburg in dissent. Harold F. Rice, a Caucasian citizen of Hawaii precluded by a provision of the Hawaiian Constitution from voting in the statewide election of trustees to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an agency responsible for the administration of social programs for the benefit of descendants of the original inhabitants of Hawaii, sued Benjamin Cayetano, governor of Hawaii, claiming violation of his right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The district court upheld Rice's preclusion on the theory that under the statute granting statehood to Hawaii, Congress intended that the United States and Hawaii assume a trust relationship with Native Hawaiians and that the voting restriction was rationally related to fulfilling this obligation (Rice v. Cayetano, 1997). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in 1998.
The Supreme Court reversed, broadly construing the language of the Fifteenth Amendment to preclude not only race-based qualifications on the right to vote but also limitations based on ancestry, which the Court deemed a “proxy for race” and “corruptive of the whole legal order democratic elections seek to preserve” (pp. 514, 517). Although it noted that federal statutes mandating differential treatment of Indian tribes as quasi-sovereign political communities, particularly in fulfillment of treaty obligations, were constitutionally permissible, the majority held that even if Congress had elected to treat Native Hawaiians as a tribe—which it had not—the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited Congress from authorizing Hawaii to create a racially discriminatory voting scheme.
In contrast, the dissent argued that the historical record supported the finding that Native Hawaiians should be considered, for purposes of the Fifteenth Amendment, a tribe of indigenous peoples to whom the United States owed a duty of trust identical to that owed to Indian tribes and that, as a consequence, the provision of the Hawaiian Constitution authorizing differential treatment in regard to voting was rationally related to fulfilling trust obligations and thus constitutionally sound.
In the aftermath, State-funded Native Hawaiian–only educational programs have come under attack on constitutional grounds, and in response efforts to secure federal recognition of a trust responsibility, and thereby constitutional protection for these programs have intensified. The broader process of formal reconciliation between Native Hawaiians and the United States for the role of the latter in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 provides what may be a beneficial context for negotiations toward this objective.
William C. Bradford