WASHINGTON — The United States may have apologized in 1993 for the "illegal overthrow" of Hawaii's native monarch a century earlier, but that congressional expression of regret did not give native Hawaiians a legal claim to state lands, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 9-0 decision leaves it to the state of Hawaii to decide how to manage the 1.2 million acres in dispute.
The title to this land transferred to the state in 1959, when it was admitted to the Union. But the historic and moral claims of native Hawaiians were not entirely resolved -- then or now.
In 1893, a group of American businessmen, with the aid of the U.S. armed forces, took power, replaced the Hawaiian monarch and sought annexation by the U.S. government. Five years later, President McKinley signed an order that annexed Hawaii as a U.S. territory.
In recent decades, native Hawaiians -- as well as the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs -- have asserted claims to land that was held in trust for the people of the islands. They argued the land cannot be sold until the claims of the native Hawaiians are heard and resolved.
Last year, they won before the Hawaii Supreme Court. Its justices cited the words of the Congressional Apology Resolution of 1993 and said federal lawmakers had recognized the "inherent sovereignty of the native Hawaiian people."
Hawaii Atty. Gen. Mark Bennett appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, since the state court's decision rested on federal law. He said the state court's "perplexing decision" was not only wrong, but could cast doubt on the legal status of all the state's lands, which make up 29% of Hawaii's territory.
In Tuesday's opinion, the high court rejected the state court's decision and said the "Apology Resolution" was just that and nothing more. Though the resolution voiced the nation's regret for the use of force to overthrow Hawaii's monarch, it did not "create substantive rights" to the state's lands, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said. Congress did not take "away from the citizens of Hawaii the authority to resolve an issue that is a great importance to the people of the state," he added.
Both sides agreed the remaining disputes over state lands need to be resolved in Hawaii.
"We're obviously very pleased with the Supreme Court's decision," Bennett said in an interview, because justices rejected the view that Congress "had changed the legal landscape" for state lands.
Alito's opinion also appeared to warn Congress to stand clear. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) has said native Hawaiians deserve legal rights similar to those enjoyed by Native Americans.
"Native Hawaiians need a seat at the table," Akaka said in reaction to Tuesday's ruling. "Mainland indigenous people have this opportunity, and Native Hawaiians deserve the same chance."
But Alito said it "would raise grave constitutional concerns" if Congress sought to "cloud Hawaii's title to its sovereign lands" after it had joined the Union. "We have emphasized that Congress cannot, after statehood, reserve or convey . . . lands that have already been bestowed upon a state," he wrote.