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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 31, 2006

High court hears appeal of homestead case

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Hawai'i Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the long-standing legal battle between the state and more than 2,700 Native Hawaiians who say their claims were not evaluated before the termination of the Hawaiian Home Lands claims review program in 1999.

The arguments came more than six years after Leona M. Kalima, Dianne Boner and Joseph Ching filed a class-action lawsuit against the state seeking to represent beneficiaries of the trust administered by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Thomas R. Grande, the attorney for the claimants, said he hopes the outcome of yesterday's arguments will be that the case will be heard in Circuit Court.

"(The claimants) are dying off while we have been languishing in court," Grande said. "They simply want the justice that is due to them. We're encouraged and we're hopeful."

The suit is part of the quest by the beneficiaries to obtain compensation for their claims alleging breaches of trust, including years-long delays in processing their applications and the awarding of homestead sites.

The state had set up a process in 1991 for handling the claims for breaches from 1959 to 1988. The process allowed for the filing of lawsuits by Dec. 31, 1999, but only after a panel reviewed the claims and the Legislature acted on the panel's recommendations.

But that process "fell apart" and the Legislature took no action on the 2,700 claims filed with the panel, Grande said. The Legislature passed a bill extending the life of the panel for one year, but Gov. Ben Cayetano vetoed it on June 16, 1999, ending the process.

On Aug, 29, 2000, Circuit Judge Victoria Marks ruled that claimants had a right to sue the state, a decision that was appealed by the state on Sept. 9, 2000. The class-action case was delayed in Circuit Court pending the outcome of the appeal that the state filed with the Hawai'i Supreme Court.

Both sides filed briefs in 2002, and oral arguments were heard yesterday. More than 50 people showed up at Ali'iolani Hale yesterday to support the Native Hawaiian cause.

Charlene Aina, state deputy attorney general, said she thought the court was attentive and understood the issues. "We look forward to their ruling," she said, declining further comment.

Alan Murakami, an attorney and member of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., the entity that represented many of the original claimants, said he knows of at least 48 claimants who died since the start of the claims process.

"It's been an extremely long and frustrating road for many claimants and for some it's been a death march," he said. "And these deaths are only of people we know the number has to be greater.

"A favorable decision means only that they finally get to present their breach of trust claims in court."

Said Evangeline Lana'i, an 86-year-old who filed a claim that was not heard before the process was discontinued in 1999: "I think we've waited long enough. I'm tired of talking."

Kalima said the wait has been difficult but she is happy they are getting on with it.

"Frustrating is not the word. It has moved to anger, hurt," she said.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.