Rice v. Cayetano was the most important civil rights lawsuit in the history of the State of Hawaii. The February 23, 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision spurred a decade of additional civil rights lawsuits seeking to abolish or desegregate Hawaii’s empire of government and private race-based programs. Racial separatists immediately sought protection for those programs through the Hawaiian Government Reorganization bill (Akaka bill) still being pushed in Congress ten years later.
The Rice decision abolished racial segregation in Hawaii elections. The state Constitution had said only ethnic Hawaiians could vote for trustees of the state government agency “Office of Hawaiian Affairs.” Thanks to the Rice decision all registered voters now have equal voting rights regardless of race. A followup federal lawsuit, Arakaki#1, further desegregated OHA by removing the racial restriction on candidacy for OHA trustees. Thanks to Arakaki#1 all registered voters now have equal rights to run as candidates for all state government offices regardless of race. In Summer 2000 Governor Ben Cayetano won a legal battle and ousted all nine OHA trustees, because they had been illegally elected. In November there were 96 candidates for the nine seats. At least a dozen OHA candidates had no Hawaiian native blood, and one of them won a seat on the board. There were numerous proposals for ways to dodge the Supreme Court decision by various methods, including bills in the Legislature that would have transfered the assets of OHA and DHHL to a private racially exclusionary trust fund.
The battle for civil rights in Hawaii gained huge momentum from the Rice decision, and continues today against entrenched opposition. Strong language in the Rice decision (see quotes below) emboldened civil rights activists to file several lawsuits during the following ten years, seeking to dismantle or desegregate Hawaii’s empire of powerful, wealthy race-based government and private institutions. But the lawsuits attacking government programs were dismissed for technical reasons focusing on “standing” and the “political question” doctrine. The lawsuits attacking the racially exclusionary admissions policy at Kamehameha Schools were settled by large payouts to plaintiffs before any precedent-setting decision could be handed down. Since none of these government or Kamehameha lawsuits was decided on the merits, all issues remain open to future litigation.
In the meantime Hawaii’s empire of race-based institutions has sought protection through the Akaka bill, which would authorize creation of a racially-exclusionary government resembling an Indian tribe that could enfold the race-based institutions under its jurisdiction. The bill has passed the U.S. House on two occasions, but failed on a cloture vote in the Senate due to opposition from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a public veto threat from President Bush. On the tenth anniversary of the Rice decision it’s still not clear whether the Akaka bill will be enacted into law, and whether it could survive eventual Supreme Court scrutiny.
For a detailed description and analysis of the Rice decision, and the legal and political battles it spawned throughout the past decade (including Arakaki#1, Barrett, Carroll, Arakaki#2, Kamehameha Schools, Kuroiwa, DHHL property tax, and Akaka bill) see a new webpage created to commemorate the tenth anniversary:
For an explanation of the “big picture” in which the Rice decision and the Akaka bill are important brush strokes, see a 302-page book “Hawaiian Apartheid: Racial Separatism and Ethnic Nationalism in the Aloha State” at