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Rice v. Cayetano

Citation. 528 U.S. 495 (2000)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Rice (Plaintiff), a citizen of Hawaii, but not a “Hawaiian” as defined by state law, challenged a statute allowing only “Hawaiians” to vote in elections determining the trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A voting classification created by a state that is defined by ancestry that is often used as a proxy for race is unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment.


The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is an agency operated by the state of Hawaii. The agency’s mission is to administer state programs aimed to benefit two groups of Hawaiian citizens, “Hawaiians” and “native Hawaiians.” “Native Hawaiians” are defined by state law individuals who were at least one-half descendant from the races that inhabited the Hawaiian Islands before 1778. “Hawaiians” are defined as all descendants of the people inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, which included people who arrived on the Islands at that time from other regions. This group is larger and includes the “native Hawaiians.” Only “Hawaiians” are allowed to vote in the state election to choose trustees for the OHA. Plaintiff is a citizen of Hawaii whose family has lived in Hawaii for several generations. He is not a “Hawaiian” as defined by the state statute and cannot participate in the election of trustees. Plaintiff challenged the statute regarding the trustee election as unconstitutional under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. [The remainder of the procedural posture is not included in the casebook excerpt.]


Is a voting classification defined by ancestry that is often used as a proxy for race unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment?


(Kennedy, J.) Yes. A voting classification created by a state that is defined by ancestry that is often used as a proxy for race is unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment. Ancestry can be used in legislation as a proxy for race, and it being used in that manner here. The inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands were long isolated from migration and developed a homogenous culture by 1778. This statute was designed to preserve that culture in the present. The Court has found racial discrimination in laws that single out identifiable classes of people “solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” The purpose of the statutory definitions at issue here is to recognize the early Hawaiians as a distinct people. In looking to the history of these definitions, Hawaii has used ancestry as a racial definition and for a racial purpose. The state argues that the statutory voting restriction is racially neutral because not all Polynesians are included, only those whose ancestry satisfies the requirement. However, this argument is contradicted by the express racial purpose of the restriction and its actual effect. [The disposition is not included in the casebook extract.]


(Stevens, J.) The voting restrictions under consideration here are based only on ancestry and not on race or color. This use of lineal descent instead of blood-based characteristics is an important distinction. Ancestry can be traced back to a certain point in time without providing any information about the current descendant’s race or color. Ancestry does not imply identification with a specific race or exclusion based on race. In some circumstances ancestry is a proxy for race, but it is not here. Those eligible to vote for the OHA trustees are all beneficiaries of the public trust the OHA administers and all have at least one ancestor who was a resident of Hawaii in 1778. It is not unusual to have a trust’s trustees selected by a class that includes the trust’s beneficiaries. The majority decision assumes that the trust is meant for the benefit of “native Hawaiians” and not for “Hawaiians.” There is nothing racially discriminatory about allowing “Hawaiians” to vote for the OHA trustees. This expansion of voting rights ensures that no matter how “diluted” the race of “native Hawaiians” gets, the “Hawaiians” will represent those whose ancestors were part of a cultural community and who have inherited the traditions the public trust was established to protect. This inclusion of “Hawaiians” demonstrates that the trust and voting restrictions are not racially motivated, but seek to preserve political and cultural interests shared by both groups. Also, the definition of “Hawaiian” does not fall strictly along racial lines. Full-blooded Polynesians without a qualifying ancestor who was a 1778 resident are excluded, while those of other races with a qualifying ancestor are included. Ancestry is not being used here to reduce voting rights, but to allow for meaningful participation in the management of the trust property. The classification is not demeaning and is based upon the premise that those who share a particular heritage are entitled to manage a trust that is for their benefit.


Some critics have opined that the courts should not apply strict scrutiny review to classifications involving Hawaiians. Assuming that Hawaiians can be considered a race, which this opinion demonstrates is not necessarily the case, the issues that face Hawaiians are fundamentally different from the claims of other minority racial groups in America. While strict scrutiny is designed to protect groups excluded from the political and social systems within the United States, Hawaiians are trying to remedy the harm resulting from their loss of sovereignty at the hands of the United States. While minority groups in the U.S. seek greater access and inclusion and an increase in political and economic influence, Hawaiians are trying to restore their “separateness” from the United States. See, e.g., Chris K. Iijima, “Race over Rice: Binary Analytical Boxes and a Twenty-First Century Endorsement of Nineteenth Century Imperialism in Rice v. Cayetano,” 53 Rutgers L. Rev. 91 (Fall 2000). This is the position taken by the lower courts in Rice and in Justice Stevens’ dissent.

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