Robert Thomas
Robert Thomas

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.

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Robert H. Thomas is one of the preeminent land use lawyers in Hawaii. He specializes in land use issues including regulatory takings, eminent domain, water rights, and voting rights cases. He has tried cases and appeals in Hawaii, California, and the federal courts. Robert received his LLM, with honors, from Columbia Law School where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, and his JD from the University of Hawaii School of Law where he served as editor of the Law Review. Robert taught law at the University of Santa Clara School of Law, and was an exam grader and screener for the California Committee of Bar Examiners. He currently serves as the Chair of the Condemnation Law Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section on State & Local Government Law. He is the Hawaii member of Owners’ Counsel of America, a national network of the most experienced eminent domain and property rights lawyers. Membership in OCA is by invitation only, and is limited to a single attorney from each state. Robert is also the Managing Attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation Hawaii Center, a non-profit legal foundation dedicated to protecting property rights and individual liberties. Reach him at rht@hawaiilawyer.com He is also a frequent speaker on land use and eminent domain issues in Hawaii and nationwide. For a list of upcoming events and speaking engagements.