On Friday, December 9, 2011, the United States Supreme Court considered whether it should agree to accept certiorari in an important equal protection case from Hawaii. The issue in Corboy v. Louie, is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state or municipality from creating tax exemptions that are available only to taxpayers of a certain race. Without yet agreeing to hear the case, the Court has asked the U.S. Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States.
Under the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, now incorporated in Hawaii’s constitution, Hawaii grants long-term homestead leases to native Hawaiians for only $1 per year. Lessees are exempt from all property taxes for seven years, and Hawaii’s four counties extend this tax benefit in various forms. The Act defines a “native Hawaiian” specifically in racial terms: A “native Hawaiian” is “any descendent of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778.” As a consequence of Hawaii granting homestead leases over the years, property owners are subjected to an unequal tax structure that is determined by their race. For more on this case, see here.
In Rice v. Cayetano, (2000), the Supreme Court held that the definition of native Hawaiian as used in the Homestead Act is a racial classification. The Court invoked the Fifteenth Amendment to invalidate a Hawaiian voting scheme that restricted voters based upon the native Hawaiian definition. Clearly, Hawaii also violates the Fourteenth Amendment by using the native Hawaiian racial classification to determine which citizens may receive tax-exempt homestead leases.
The inhabitants of Hawaii overwhelmingly supported and voted for statehood in 1959. As a consequence, the Supreme Court reminded Hawaii, in Rice v. Cayetano, that the “Constitution of the United States . . . has become the heritage of all the citizens of Hawaii.” Accordingly, the U.S. Solicitor General should encourage Hawaii to abandon its racial classifications and treat its citizens with the equality to which they are all entitled.