Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495 (2000)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 98-818. Argued October 6, 1999—Decided February 23, 2000

The Hawaiian Constitution limits the right to vote for nine trustees chosen in a statewide election. The trustees compose the governing authority of a state agency known as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, or OHA. The agency administers programs designed for the benefit of two subclasses of Hawaiian citizenry, "Hawaiians" and "native Hawaiians." State law defines "native Hawaiians" as descendants of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the islands before 1778, and "Hawaiians"—a larger class that includes "native Hawaiians"—as descendants of the peoples inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. The trustees are chosen in a statewide election in which only "Hawaiians" may vote. Petitioner Rice, a Hawaiian citizen without the requisite ancestry to be a "Hawaiian" under state law, applied to vote in OHA trustee elections. When his application was denied, he sued respondent Governor (hereinafter State), claiming, inter alia, that the voting exclusion was invalid under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Federal District Court granted the State summary judgment. Surveying the history of the islands and their people, it determined that Congress and Hawaii have recognized a guardian-ward relationship with the native Hawaiians, which is analogous to the relationship between the United States and Indian tribes. It examined the voting qualifications with the latitude applied to legislation passed pursuant to Congress' power over Indian affairs, see Morton v. Mancari, 417 U. S. 535, and found that the electoral scheme was rationally related to the State's responsibility under its Admission Act to utilize a part of the proceeds from certain public lands for the native Hawaiians' benefit. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, finding that Hawaii "may rationally conclude that Hawaiians, being the group to whom trust obligations run and to whom OHA trustees owe a duty of loyalty, should be the group to decide who the trustees ought to be." 146 F. 3d 1075, 1079.

Held: Hawaii's denial of Rice's right to vote in OHA trustee elections violates the Fifteenth Amendment. Pp. 511-524.

(a) The Amendment's purpose and command are set forth in explicit and comprehensive language. The National Government and the States may not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race. The Amendment reaffirms the equality of races at the most basic level


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