BY ROBERT THOMAS – In a cert petition filed last week, five Hawaii taxpayers argue that they have standing to challenge the constitutionality of property tax exemptions conferred on lessees of Hawaiian Homesteads. Only “native Hawaiians” are eligible to lease homestead land, and thus only those possessing the appropriate blood quantum are entitled to the tax exemptions.
The petitioners are not “native Hawaiians” and thus are not lessees, and paid their property taxes under protest. When they sought refunds in the Hawaii Tax Appeals Court and argued that they should also be exempt, that court concluded that “native Hawaiian” was not a racial classification and did not review the tax exemption with strict scrutiny. Instead, the court upheld the exemption under rational basis review.
The Hawaii Supreme Court vacated the Tax Court decision and dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, holding the petitioners lacked standing to challenge the exemption since they had not sought homestead leases (leases for which they were ineligible because they are not native Hawaiians).
The petition presents the following question:
In Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495 (2000), this Court held that a state classification of voters according to whether they are “any descendant of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778” was an impermissible racial classification under the Fifteenth Amendment. Respondents have employed the same classification to determine whether a taxpayer is eligible for certain long-term leases that entitle lessees to significant tax exemptions. No equivalent exemption is available to petitioners because they do not fall within that racial classification.
Petitioners paid their taxes under protest and then sought refunds from their respective counties on the ground that their tax bills resulted from a racial classification inconsistent with the Constitution. The Hawaii courts declined to apply Rice or subject the classification to strict scrutiny. The question presented here is:
Whether the Hawaii courts erred in failing to recognize that petitioners have standing to seek a refund of their own taxes and that the Equal Protection Clause precludes a State or municipality from creating tax exemptions that are available only to members of a certain race.
Because the petition draws into question the constitutionality of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and the constitutionality of a part of the Hawaii Admission Act, the U.S. Solicitor General was served a copy. It will be interesting to see if the SG adds its views.
The state’s Brief in Opposition, if any, is due in 30 days.