An appeals court decision on an effort to block state funding for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is another reason that Hawaiians need the federal government to recognize their right to a government of their own, Maui Hawaiian leaders said Wednesday.
Cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. said there were good and bad points to the appeals panel decision, but he said it was basically bad in setting the stage for more challenges to benefits for Native Hawaiians.
"It's an insult to the Hawaiians who opened their homes and hearts to people and now are being oppressed again," Maxwell said.
He is a supporter of the federal recognition bill, commonly known as the Akaka Bill, that he says will help to protect programs set up specifically to provide benefits to Native Hawaiians.
"There's nothing in the horizon to save our entitlements. It's more pressing now to get the Akaka Bill passed," he said.
Retired judge and OHA Trustee Boyd Mossman said Hawaiians have "dodged a bullet" in that the appeals court panel narrowly focused on a single issue of state general tax revenues.
"But until we have the Akaka Bill passed, we're going to be suffering the effects of more bullets that are chipping away at Hawaiian benefits. That's why Akaka is so important to us, to make available a law that will help us to defend ourselves," he said.
Maxwell and Mossman were reacting to the ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday that allows a group of Hawaii taxpayers to sue to block the state from funding OHA for Hawaiians-only programs.
The appeals panel ruling reversed a U.S. District Court decision on only the issue of state funding from general tax revenues. The appeals panel allowed to stand the lower court decision that dismissed the federal government and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) from claims in the lawsuit, as well as a decision that allows continued funding for OHA from ceded-lands revenues.
In Honolulu, OHA called a news conference to respond to the ruling, with Sen. Daniel Akaka Ð who had introduced the bill in the Senate Ð among several participants urging support for the legislation.
Others included Gov. Linda Lingle, DHHL Chairman Micah Kane, Kamehameha Schools Chief Executive Officer Dee Jay Mailer, University of Hawaii interim President David McClain and Robbie Alm, a vice president at Hawaiian Electric Co.
Akaka made a strong pitch for his bill and said he is confident that he and Sen. Daniel Inouye have the 60 votes necessary for approval of a cloture motion Tuesday that would force a Senate vote on the bill.
Lingle said the state will ''fight vigorously any attempt to take anything from Hawaiian people.''
The governor said she and Kane will leave Sunday for Washington ''to try to reach as many people as we can'' to get support for the cloture vote and the bill.
''We have addressed challenges to the constitutionality of the Akaka Bill and feel we have put that to rest,'' Lingle said.
OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said the court ruling ''underscores the need to pass the Akaka Bill.'' She and other trustees, including Mossman, also will travel to Washington to lobby for the measure.
OHA's chances of prevailing in the funding case would be much stronger with the Akaka Bill, said acting Attorney General Lisa Ginoza.
Deputy Attorney General Charlene Aina, who helped argue the case before the appeals court, said Congress already has recognized Native Hawaiians in various federal programs but said it has been in ''a less-than-direct way. The Akaka Bill would give Native Hawaiians direct recognition we haven't had.''
Alm said the ruling is bad not only for Native Hawaiians but for the entire community.
''The fight doesn't belong just to the Hawaiian community; it belongs to all of us,'' he said.
Alm said the non-Hawaiian plaintiffs in the case speak for only a small minority.
"This is a mixed ruling . . . but it allows groups to continue to attack benefits for Native Hawaiians. The court did not accept our argument that this is a political question and it can be resolved with passage of the Akaka Bill," Mossman said.
"They did say that Akaka would not be a guarantee of benefits. But certainly it would be better than none at all."
Maxwell today will participate in a public forum on the bill, sponsored by Ho'okahua and by Po'okela, both Native Hawaiian programs at Maui Community College. Kalei Ka'eo, a spokesperson for Hui Pu and NOA (Not of America) will speak in opposition to the bill.
The event is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. at the MCC Science Building, Room 10A.