State’s Right

3 minute read

Hawaii’s land reform is upheld

The ruling sounded more fitting for El Salvador than the U.S. Indeed, last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding Hawaii’s right to break up large privately held estates and redistribute ownership to the tenants seemed downright radical. But the unanimous 8-0 ruling* was made for the most conservative of reasons. Said Hawaii’s deputy attorney general Michael Lilly: “It’s a classic states’ rights case.”

The decision grew out of a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Land Reform Act passed by Hawaii’s legislature in 1967. This law was designed to put an end to the remnants of Hawaii’s feudal tenure system, a holdover from the islands’ settlement by Polynesian immigrants who allowed only high chiefs to own land. The challenge was brought by trustees of the Bishop estate, Hawaii’s largest private landowner (340,000 acres).

The estate is the legacy of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a member of one of Hawaii’s royal families, who died in 1884.

The Bishop estate and about 70 other large landholders own 47% of Hawaii’s 4 million acres; the local and Federal governments hold 42%. Less than 11% is held by small property owners. The state argued that this concentration of land in a few hands has sharply inflated housing costs for Hawaii’s homeowners. Says Congressman Cecil Heftel, a Honolulu Democrat: “The ruling protects a lot of people who otherwise would have been unable to maintain their homes.”

In upholding the land-reform law, the court cited the Fifth Amendment, which allows the Government to acquire property for “public use” after paying “just compensation.” Typically, this right of eminent domain is invoked to permit the purchase of land for roads and public projects. The court affirmed that a state could exercise this right for other purposes, such as land reform, as determined by its legislature. “The people of Hawaii have attempted, much as the settlers of the original 13 colonies did, to reduce the perceived social and economic evils of a land oligopoly traceable to their monarchs,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Unless Hawaii’s state supreme court invalidates the program, the lines on the volcanic islands will soon be redrawn.

Prospective buyers and sellers must now go to court to haggle over prices on about 5,700 lots in 39 tracts of land, most of them owned by the Bishop estate. Myron Thompson, a trustee of the Bishop estate, calls the process perhaps “the greatest rip-off of this nation in the 20th century.”

But Mike Morita, who owns a home near Honolulu but not the land beneath it, is predictably pleased. Said he: “I have three kids, and I’d like to turn property over to them.”

* Justice Thurgood Marshall, who is married to a Hawaiian, exempted himself from the case.

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