RICE V. CAYETANO (98-818) 528 U.S. 495 (2000)
146 F.3d 1075, reversed.
[ Kennedy ]
[ Breyer ]
[ Stevens ]
[ Ginsburg ]
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Opinion of the Court

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


No. 98—818



[February 23, 2000]

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

A citizen of Hawaii comes before us claiming that an explicit, race-based voting qualification has barred him from voting in a statewide election. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, binding on the National Government, the States, and their political subdivisions, controls the case.

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. Haw. Const., Art. XII, §5. The agency administers programs designed for the benefit of two subclasses of the Hawaiian citizenry. The smaller class comprises those designated as “native Hawaiians,” defined by statute, with certain supplementary language later set out in full, as descendants of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778. Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—2 (1993). The second, larger class of persons benefited by OHA programs is “Hawaiians,” defined to be, with refinements contained in the statute we later quote, those persons who are descendants of people inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Ibid. The right to vote for trustees is limited to “Hawaiians,” the second, larger class of persons, which of course includes the smaller class of “native Hawaiians.” Haw. Const., Art XII, §5.

Petitioner Rice, a citizen of Hawaii and thus himself a Hawaiian in a well-accepted sense of the term, does not have the requisite ancestry even for the larger class. He is not, then, a “Hawaiian” in terms of the statute; so he may not vote in the trustee election. The issue presented by this case is whether Rice may be so barred. Rejecting the State’s arguments that the classification in question is not racial or that, if it is, it is nevertheless valid for other reasons, we hold Hawaii’s denial of petitioner’s right to vote to be a clear violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.


When Congress and the State of Hawaii enacted the laws we are about to discuss and review, they made their own assessments of the events which intertwine Hawaii’s history with the history of America itself. We will begin with a very brief account of that historical background. Historians and other scholars who write of Hawaii will have a different purpose and more latitude than do we. They may draw judgments either more laudatory or more harsh than the ones to which we refer. Our more limited role, in the posture of this particular case, is to recount events as understood by the lawmakers, thus ensuring that we accord proper appreciation to their purposes in adopting the policies and laws at issue. The litigants seem to agree that two works in particular are appropriate for our consideration, and we rely in part on those sources. See L. Fuchs, Hawaii Pono: An Ethnic and Political History (1961) (hereinafter Fuchs); 1—3 R. Kuykendall, The Hawaiian Kingdom (1938); (1953); (1967) (hereinafter Kuykendall).

The origins of the first Hawaiian people and the date they reached the islands are not established with certainty, but the usual assumption is that they were Polynesians who voyaged from Tahiti and began to settle the islands around A. D. 750. Fuchs 4; 1 Kuykendall 3; see also G. Daws, Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands xii—xiii (1968) (Marquesas Islands and Tahiti). When England’s Captain Cook made landfall in Hawaii on his expedition in 1778, the Hawaiian people had developed, over the preceding 1,000 years or so, a cultural and political structure of their own. They had well-established traditions and customs and practiced a polytheistic religion. Agriculture and fishing sustained the people, and, though population estimates vary, some modern historians conclude that the population in 1778 was about 200,000—300,000. See Fuchs 4; R. Schmitt, Historical Statistics of Hawaii 7 (1977) (hereinafter Schmitt). The accounts of Hawaiian life often remark upon the people’s capacity to find beauty and pleasure in their island existence, but life was not altogether idyllic. In Cook’s time the islands were ruled by four different kings, and intra-Hawaiian wars could inflict great loss and suffering. Kings or principal chieftains, as well as high priests, could order the death or sacrifice of any subject. The society was one, however, with its own identity, its own cohesive forces, its own history.

In the years after Cook’s voyage many expeditions would follow. A few members of the ships’ companies remained on the islands, some as authorized advisors, others as deserters. Their intermarriage with the inhabitants of Hawaii was not infrequent.

In 1810, the islands were united as one kingdom under the leadership of an admired figure in Hawaiian history, Kamehameha I. It is difficult to say how many settlers from Europe and America were in Hawaii when the King consolidated his power. One historian estimates there were no more than 60 or so settlers at that time. 1 Kuykendall 27. An influx was soon to follow. Beginning about 1820, missionaries arrived, of whom Congregationalists from New England were dominant in the early years. They sought to teach Hawaiians to abandon religious beliefs and customs that were contrary to Christian teachings and practices.

The 1800’s are a story of increasing involvement of westerners in the economic and political affairs of the Kingdom. Rights to land became a principal concern, and there was unremitting pressure to allow non-Hawaiians to use and to own land and to be secure in their title. Westerners were not the only ones with pressing concerns, however, for the disposition and ownership of land came to be an unsettled matter among the Hawaiians themselves.

The status of Hawaiian lands has presented issues of complexity and controversy from at least the rule of Kamehameha I to the present day. We do not attempt to interpret that history, lest our comments be thought to bear upon issues not before us. It suffices to refer to various of the historical conclusions that appear to have been persuasive to Congress and to the State when they enacted the laws soon to be discussed.

When Kamehameha I came to power, he reasserted suzerainty over all lands and provided for control of parts of them by a system described in our own cases as “feudal.” Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 232 (1984); Kaiser Aetna v. United States, 444 U.S. 164, 166 (1979). A well-known description of the King’s early decrees is contained in an 1864 opinion of the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The court, in turn, drew extensively upon an earlier report which recited, in part, as follows:

“‘When the islands were conquered by Kamehameha I., he followed the example of his predecessors, and divided out the lands among his principal warrior chiefs, retaining, however, a portion in his own hands to be cultivated or managed by his own immediate servants or attendants. Each principal chief divided his lands anew and gave them out to an inferior order of chiefs or persons of rank, by whom they were subdivided again and again after (often) passing through the hands of four, five or six persons from the King down to the lowest class of tenants. All these persons were considered to have rights in the lands, or the productions of them, the proportions of which rights were not clearly defined, although universally acknowledged… . The same rights which the King possessed over the superior landlords and all under them, the several grades of landlords possessed over their inferiors, so that there was a joint ownership of the land, the King really owning the allodium, and the person in whose hands he placed the land, holding it in trust.’” In re Estate of His Majesty Kamehameha IV, 2 Haw. 715, 718—719 (quoting Principles Adopted by the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles, 2 Stat. Laws 81—82 (Haw. Kingdom 1847)).

Beginning in 1839 and through the next decade, a successive ruler, Kamehameha III, approved a series of decrees and laws designed to accommodate demands for ownership and security of title. In the words of the Hawaiian Supreme Court, “[t]he subject of rights in land was one of daily increasing importance to the newly formed Government, for it was obvious that the internal resources of the country could not be developed until the system of undivided and undefined ownership in land should be abolished.” 2 Haw., at 721. Arrangements were made to confer freehold title in some lands to certain chiefs and other individuals. The King retained vast lands for himself, and directed that other extensive lands be held by the government, which by 1840 had adopted the first Constitution of the islands. Thus was effected a fundamental and historic division, known as the Great Mahele. In 1850, foreigners, in turn, were given the right of land ownership.

The new policies did not result in wide dispersal of ownership. Though some provisions had been attempted by which tenants could claim lands, these proved ineffective in many instances, and ownership became concentrated. In 1920, the Congress of the United States, in a Report on the bill establishing the Hawaiian Homes Commission, made an assessment of Hawaiian land policy in the following terms:

“Your committee thus finds that since the institution of private ownership of lands in Hawaii the native Hawaiians, outside of the King and the chiefs, were granted and have held but a very small portion of the lands of the Islands. Under the homestead laws somewhat more than a majority of the lands were homesteaded to Hawaiians, but a great many of these lands have been lost through improvidence and inability to finance farming operations. Most frequently, however, the native Hawaiian, with no thought of the future, has obtained the land for a nominal sum, only to turn about and sell it to wealthy interests for a sum more nearly approaching its real value. The Hawaiians are not business men and have shown themselves unable to meet competitive conditions unaided. In the end the speculators are the real beneficiaries of the homestead laws. Thus the tax returns for 1919 show that only 6.23 per centum of the property of the Islands is held by native Hawaiians and this for the most part is lands in the possession of approximately a thousand wealthy Hawaiians, the descendents of the chiefs.” H. R. Rep. No. 839, 66th Cong., 2d Sess., 6 (1920).

While these developments were unfolding, the United States and European powers made constant efforts to protect their interests and to influence Hawaiian political and economic affairs in general. The first “articles of arrangement” between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii were signed in 1826, 8 Department of State, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776—1949, p. 861 (C. Bevans comp. 1968), and additional treaties and conventions between the two countries were signed in 1849, 1875, and 1887, see Treaty with the Hawaiian Islands, 9 Stat. 977 (1849) (friendship, commerce, and navigation); Convention between the United States of America and His Majesty the King of the Hawaiian Islands, 19 Stat. 625 (1875) (commercial reciprocity); Supplementary Convention between the United States of America and His Majesty the King of the Hawaiian Islands, 25 Stat. 1399 (1887) (same). The United States was not the only country interested
in Hawaii and its affairs, but by the later part of the century the reality of American dominance in trade, settlement, economic expansion, and political influence became apparent.

Tensions intensified between an anti-Western, pro-native bloc in the government on the one hand and Western business interests and property owners on the other. The conflicts came to the fore in 1887. Westerners forced the resignation of the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the adoption of a new Constitution, which, among other things, reduced the power of the monarchy and extended the right to vote to non-Hawaiians. 3 Kuykendall 344—372.

Tensions continued through 1893, when they again peaked, this time in response to an attempt by the then Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, to promulgate a new constitution restoring monarchical control over the House of Nobles and limiting the franchise to Hawaiian subjects. A so-called Committee of Safety, a group of professionals and businessmen, with the active assistance of John Stevens, the United States Minister to Hawaii, acting with United States armed forces, replaced the monarchy with a provisional government. That government sought annexation by the United States. On December 18 of the same year, President Cleveland, unimpressed and indeed offended by the actions of the American Minister, denounced the role of the American forces and called for restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy. Message of the President to the Senate and House of Representatives, reprinted in H. R. Rep. No. 243, 53d Cong., 2d Sess., 3—15 (1893). The Queen could not resume her former place, however, and, in 1894, the provisional government established the Republic of Hawaii. The Queen abdicated her throne a year later.

In 1898, President McKinley signed a Joint Resolution, sometimes called the Newlands Resolution, to annex the Hawaiian Islands as territory of the United States. 30 Stat. 750. According to the Joint Resolution, the Republic of Hawaii ceded all former Crown, government, and public lands to the United States. Ibid. The resolution further provided that revenues from the public lands were to be “used solely for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands for educational and other public purposes.” Ibid. Two years later the Hawaiian Organic Act established the Territory of Hawaii, asserted United States control over the ceded lands, and put those lands “in the possession, use, and control of the government of the Territory of Hawaii … until otherwise provided for by Congress.” Act of Apr. 30, 1900, ch. 339, §91, 31 Stat. 159.

In 1993, a century after the intervention by the Committee of Safety, the Congress of the United States reviewed this history, and in particular the role of Minister Stevens. Congress passed a Joint Resolution recounting the events in some detail and offering an apology to the native Hawaiian people. 107 Stat. 1510.

Before we turn to the relevant provisions two other important matters, which affected the demographics of Hawaii, must be recounted. The first is the tragedy inflicted on the early Hawaiian people by the introduction of western diseases and infectious agents. As early as the establishment of the rule of Kamehameha I, it was becoming apparent that the native population had serious vulnerability to diseases borne to the islands by settlers. High mortality figures were experienced in infancy and adulthood, even from common illnesses such as diarrhea, colds, and measles. Fuchs 13; see Schmitt 58. More serious diseases took even greater tolls. In the smallpox epidemic of 1853, thousands of lives were lost. Ibid. By 1878, 100 years after Cook’s arrival, the native population had been reduced to about 47,500 people. Id., at 25. These mortal illnesses no doubt were an initial cause of the despair, disenchantment, and despondency some commentators later noted in descendents of the early Hawaiian people. See Fuchs 13.

The other important feature of Hawaiian demographics to be noted is the immigration to the islands by people of many different races and cultures. Mostly in response to the demand of the sugar industry for arduous labor in the cane fields, successive immigration waves brought Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, and Filipinos to Hawaii. Beginning with the immigration of 293 Chinese in 1852, the plantations alone drew to Hawaii, in one estimate, something over 400,000 men, women, and children over the next century. Id., at 24; A. Lind, Hawaii’s People 6—7 (4th ed. 1980). Each of these ethnic and national groups has had its own history in Hawaii, its own struggles with societal and official discrimination, its own successes, and its own role in creating the present society of the islands. See E. Nordyke, The Peopling of Hawai’i 28—98 (2d ed. 1989). The 1990 census figures show the resulting ethnic diversity of the Hawaiian population. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Census, 1990 Census of Population, Supplementary Reports, Detailed Ancestry Groups for States (Oct. 1992).

With this background we turn to the legislative enactments of direct relevance to the case before us.


Not long after the creation of the new Territory, Congress became concerned with the condition of the native Hawaiian people. See H. R. Rep. No. 839, 66th Cong., 2d Sess., 2—6 (1920); Hearings on the Rehabilitation and Colonization of Hawaiians and Other Proposed Amendments to the Organic Act of the Territory of Hawaii before the House Committee on the Territories, 66th Cong., 2d Sess. (1920). Reciting its purpose to rehabilitate the native Hawaiian population, see H. R. Rep. No. 839, at 1—2, Congress enacted the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which set aside about 200,000 acres of the ceded public lands and created a program of loans and long-term leases for the benefit of native Hawaiians. Act of July 9, 1921, ch. 42, 42 Stat. 108. The Act defined “native Hawaiian[s]” to include “any descendant of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778.” Ibid.

Hawaii was admitted as the fiftieth State of the Union in 1959. With admission, the new State agreed to adopt the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act as part of its own Constitution. Pub. L. 86—3, §§4, 7, 73 Stat. 5, 7 (Admission Act); see Haw. Const., Art. XII, §§1—3. In addition, the United States granted Hawaii title to all public lands and public property within the boundaries of the State, save those which the Federal Government retained for its own use. Admission Act §5(b)—(d), 73 Stat. 5. This grant included the 200,000 acres set aside under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and almost 1.2 million additional acres of land. Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 4.

The legislation authorizing the grant recited that these lands, and the proceeds and income they generated, were to be held “as a public trust” to be “managed and disposed of for one or more of” five purposes:

“[1] for the support of the public schools and other public educational institutions, [2] for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians, as defined in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, as amended, [3] for the development of farm and home ownership on as widespread a basis as possible[,] [4] for the making of public improvements, and [5] for the provision of lands for public use.” Admission Act §5(f), 73 Stat. 6.

In the first decades following admission, the State apparently continued to administer the lands that had been set aside under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act for the benefit of native Hawaiians. The income from the balance of the public lands is said to have “by and large flowed to the department of education.” Hawaii Senate Journal, Standing Committee Rep. No. 784, pp. 1350, 1351 (1979).

In 1978 Hawaii amended its Constitution to establish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Haw. Const., Art. XII, §5, which has as its mission “[t]he betterment of conditions of native Hawaiians … [and] Hawaiians,” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—3 (1993). Members of the 1978 constitutional convention, at which the new amendments were drafted and proposed, set forth the purpose of the proposed agency:

“Members [of the Committee of the Whole] were impressed by the concept of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs which establishes a public trust entity for the benefit of the people of Hawaiian ancestry. Members foresaw that it will provide Hawaiians the right to determine the priorities which will effectuate the betterment of their condition and welfare and promote the protection and preservation of the Hawaiian race, and that it will unite Hawaiians as a people.” 1 Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of Hawaii of 1978, Committee of the Whole Rep. No. 13, p. 1018 (1980).

Implementing statutes and their later amendments vested OHA with broad authority to administer two categories of funds: a 20 percent share of the revenue from the 1.2 million acres of lands granted to the State pursuant to §5(b) of the Admission Act, which OHA is to administer “for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians,” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—13.5, and any state or federal appropriations or private donations that may be made for the benefit of “native Hawaiians” and/or “Hawaiians,” Haw. Const., Art. XII, §6. See generally Haw. Rev. Stat. §§10—1 to 10—16. (The 200,000 acres set aside under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act are administered by a separate agency. See Haw. Rev. Stat. §26—17 (1993).) The Hawaiian Legislature has charged OHA with the mission of “[s]erving as the principal public agency … responsible for the performance, development, and coordination of programs and activities relating to native Hawaiians and Hawaiians,” “[a]ssessing the policies and practices of other agencies impacting on native Hawaiians and Hawaiians,” “conducting advocacy efforts for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians,” “[a]pplying for, receiving, and disbursing, grants and donations from all sources for native Hawaiian and Hawaiian programs and services,” and “[s]erving as a receptacle for reparations.” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—3.

OHA is overseen by a nine-member board of trustees, the members of which “shall be Hawaiians” and–presenting the precise issue in this case–shall be “elected by qualified voters who are Hawaiians, as provided by law.” Haw. Const., Art. XII, §5; see Haw. Rev. Stat. §§13D—1, 13D—3(b)(1) (1993). The term “Hawaiian” is defined by statute:

“‘Hawaiian’ means any descendant of the aboriginal peoples inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands which exercised sovereignty and subsisted in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, and which peoples thereafter have continued to reside in Hawaii.” §10—2.

The statute defines “native Hawaiian” as follows:

“‘Native Hawaiian’ means any descendant of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778, as defined by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, as amended; provided that the term identically refers to the descendants of such blood quantum of such aboriginal peoples which exercised sovereignty and subsisted in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 and which peoples thereafter continued to reside in Hawaii.” Ibid.

Petitioner Harold Rice is a citizen of Hawaii and a descendant of pre-annexation residents of the islands. He is not, as we have noted, a descendant of pre-1778 natives, and so he is neither “native Hawaiian” nor “Hawaiian” as defined by the statute. Rice applied in March 1996 to vote in the elections for OHA trustees. To register to vote for the office of trustee he was required to attest: “I am also Hawaiian and desire to register to vote in OHA elections.” Affidavit on Application for Voter Registration, Lodging by Petitioner, Tab 2. Rice marked through the words “am also Hawaiian and,” then checked the form “yes.” The State denied his application.

Rice sued Benjamin Cayetano, the Governor of Hawaii, in the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii. (The Governor was sued in his official capacity, and the Attorney General of Hawaii defends the challenged enactments. We refer to the respondent as “the State.”) Rice contested his exclusion from voting in elections for OHA trustees and from voting in a special election relating to native Hawaiian sovereignty which was held in August 1996. After the District Court rejected the latter challenge, see Rice v. Cayetano, 941 F. Supp. 1529 (1996), (a decision not before us), the parties moved for summary judgment on the claim that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution invalidate the law excluding Rice from the OHA trustee elections.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the State. 963 F. Supp. 1547 (Haw. 1997). Surveying the history of the islands and their people, the District Court determined that Congress and the State of Hawaii have recognized a guardian-ward relationship with the native Hawaiians, which the court found analogous to the relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes. Id., at 1551—1554. On this premise, the court examined the voting qualification with the latitude that we have applied to legislation passed pursuant to Congress’ power over Indian affairs. Id., at 1554—1555 (citing Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 (1974)). Finding that the electoral scheme was “rationally related to the State’s responsibility under the Admission Act to utilize a portion of the proceeds from the §5(b) lands for the betterment of Native Hawaiians,” the District Court held that the voting restriction did not violate the Constitution’s ban on racial classifications. 963 F. Supp., at 1554—1555.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. 146 F.3d 1075 (CA9 1998). The court noted that Rice had not challenged the constitutionality of the underlying programs or of OHA itself. Id., at 1079. Considering itself bound to “accept the trusts and their administrative structure as [it found] them, and assume that both are lawful,” the court held 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.” Ibid. The court so held notwithstanding its clear holding that the Hawaii Constitution and implementing statutes “contain a racial classification on their face.” Ibid.

We granted certiorari, 526 U.S. 1016 (1999), and now reverse.


The purpose and command of the Fifteenth Amendment are set forth in language both explicit and comprehensive. The National Government and the States may not violate a fundamental principle: They may not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race. Color and previous condition of servitude, too, are forbidden criteria or classifications, though it is unnecessary to consider them in the present case.

Enacted in the wake of the Civil War, the immediate concern of the Amendment was to guarantee to the emancipated slaves the right to vote, lest they be denied the civil and political capacity to protect their new freedom. Vital as its objective remains, the Amendment goes beyond it. Consistent with the design of the Constitution, the Amendment is cast in fundamental terms, terms transcending the particular controversy which was the immediate impetus for its enactment. The Amendment grants protection to all persons, not just members of a particular race.

The design of the Amendment is to reaffirm the equality of races at the most basic level of the democratic process, the exercise of the voting franchise. A resolve so absolute required language as simple in command as it was comprehensive in reach. Fundamental in purpose and effect and self-executing in operation, the Amendment prohibits all provisions denying or abridging the voting franchise of any citizen or class of citizens on the basis of race. “[B]y the inherent power of the Amendment the word white disappeared” from our voting laws, bringing those who had been excluded by reason of race within “the generic grant of suffrage made by the State.” Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 363 (1915); see also Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370, 389 (1881). The Court has acknowledged the Amendment’s mandate of neutrality in straightforward terms: “If citizens of one race having certain qualifications are permitted by law to vote, those of another having the same qualifications must be. Previous to this amendment, there was no constitutional guaranty against this discrimination: now there is.” United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 218 (1876).

Though the commitment was clear, the reality remained far from the promise. Manipulative devices and practices were soon employed to deny the vote to blacks. We have cataloged before the “variety and persistence” of these techniques. South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 311—312 (1966) (citing, e.g., Guinn, supra (grandfather clause); Myers v. Anderson, 238 U.S. 368 (1915) (same); Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939) (“procedural hurdles”); Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953) (white primary); Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) (same); United States v. Thomas, 362 U.S. 58 (1960) (per curiam) (registration challenges); Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960) (racial gerrymandering); Louisiana v. United States, 380 U.S. 145 (1965) (“interpretation tests”)). Progress was slow, particularly when litigation had to proceed case by case, district by district, sometimes voter by voter. See 383 U.S., at 313—315.

Important precedents did emerge, however, which give instruction in the case now before us. The Fifteenth Amendment was quite sufficient to invalidate a scheme which did not mention race but instead used ancestry in an attempt to confine and restrict the voting franchise. In 1910, the State of Oklahoma enacted a literacy requirement for voting eligibility, but exempted from that requirement the “ ‘lineal descendant[s]’ ” of persons who were “ ‘on January 1, 1866, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation.’ Guinn, supra, at 357. Those persons whose ancestors were entitled to vote under the State’s previous, discriminatory voting laws were thus exempted from the eligibility test. Recognizing that the test served only to perpetuate those old laws and to effect a transparent racial exclusion, the Court invalidated it. 238 U.S., at 364—365.

More subtle, perhaps, than the grandfather device in Guinn were the evasions attempted in the white primary cases; but the Fifteenth Amendment, again by its own terms, sufficed to strike down these voting systems, systems designed to exclude one racial class (at least) from voting. See Terry, supra, at 469—470; Allwright, supra, at 663—666 (overruling Grovey v. Townsend, 295 U.S. 45 (1935)). The Fifteenth Amendment, the Court held, could not be so circumvented: “The Amendment bans racial discrimination in voting by both state and nation. It thus establishes a national policy … not to be discriminated against as voters in elections to determine public governmental policies or to select public officials, national, state, or local.” Terry, supra, at 467.

Unlike the cited cases, the voting structure now before us is neither subtle nor indirect. It is specific in granting the vote to persons of defined ancestry and to no others. The State maintains this is not a racial category at all but instead a classification limited to those whose ancestors were in Hawaii at a particular time, regardless of their race. Brief for Respondent 38—40. The State points to theories of certain scholars concluding that some inhabitants of Hawaii as of 1778 may have migrated from the Marquesas Islands and the Pacific Northwest, as well as from Tahiti. Id., at 38—39, and n. 15. Furthermore, the State argues, the restriction in its operation excludes a person whose traceable ancestors were exclusively Polynesian if none of those ancestors resided in Hawaii in 1778; and, on the other hand, the vote would be granted to a person who could trace, say, one sixty-fourth of his or her ancestry to a Hawaiian inhabitant on the pivotal date. Ibid. These factors, it is said, mean the restriction is not a racial classification. We reject this line of argument.

Ancestry can be a proxy for race. It is that proxy here. Even if the residents of Hawaii in 1778 had been of more diverse ethnic backgrounds and cultures, it is far from clear that a voting test favoring their descendants would not be a race-based qualification. But that is not this case. For centuries Hawaii was isolated from migration. 1 Kuykendall 3. The inhabitants shared common physical characteristics, and by 1778 they had a common culture. Indeed, the drafters of the statutory definition in question emphasized the “unique culture of the ancient Hawaiians” in explaining their work. Hawaii Senate Journal, Standing Committee Rep. No. 784, at 1354; see ibid. (“Modern scholarship also identified such race of people as culturally distinguishable from other Polynesian peoples”). The provisions before us reflect the State’s effort to preserve that commonality of people to the present day. In the interpretation of the Reconstruction era civil rights laws we have observed that “racial discrimination” is that which singles out “identifiable classes of persons … solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” Saint Francis College v. Al&nbhyph;Khazraji, 481 U.S. 604, 613 (1987). The very object of the statutory definition in question and of its earlier congressional counterpart in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act is to treat the early Hawaiians as a distinct people, commanding their own recognition and respect. The State, in enacting the legislation before us, has used ancestry as a racial definition and for a racial purpose.

The history of the State’s definition demonstrates the point. As we have noted, the statute defines “Hawaiian” as

“any descendant of the aboriginal peoples inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands which exercised sovereignty and subsisted in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, and which peoples thereafter have continued to reside in Hawaii.” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—2.

A different definition of “Hawaiian” was first promulgated in 1978 as one of the proposed amendments to the State Constitution. As proposed, “Hawaiian” was defined as “any descendant of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands, previous to 1778.” 1 Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of Hawaii of 1978, Committee of the Whole Rep. No. 13, at 1018. Rejected as not ratified in a valid manner, see Kahalekai v. Doi, 60 Haw. 324, 342, 590 P.2d 543, 555 (1979), the definition was modified and in the end promulgated in statutory form as quoted above. See Hawaii Senate Journal, Standing Committee Rep. No. 784, at 1350, 1353—1354; id., Conf. Comm. Rep. No. 77, at 998. By the drafters’ own admission, however, any changes to the language were at most cosmetic. Noting that “[t]he definitions of ‘native Hawaiian’ and ‘Hawaiian’ are changed to substitute ‘peoples’ for ‘races,’” the drafters of the revised definition “stress[ed] that this change is non-substantive, and that ‘peoples’ does mean ‘races.’” Ibid.; see also id., at 999 (“[T]he word ‘peoples’ has been substituted for ‘races’ in the definition of ‘Hawaiian’. Again, your Committee wishes to emphasize that this substitution is merely technical, and that ‘peoples’ does mean ‘races’ ”).

The next definition in Hawaii’s compilation of statutes incorporates the new definition of “Hawaiian” and preserves the explicit tie to race:

‘Native Hawaiian’ means any descendant of not less than one-half part of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778, as defined by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, as amended; provided that the term identically refers to the descendants of such blood quantum of such aboriginal peoples which exercised sovereignty and subsisted in the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 and which peoples thereafter continued to reside in Hawaii.” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—2.

This provision makes it clear: “[T]he descendants . . . of [the] aboriginal peoples” means “the descendant[s] . . . of the races.” Ibid.

As for the further argument that the restriction differentiates even among Polynesian people and is based simply on the date of an ancestor’s residence in Hawaii, this too is insufficient to prove the classification is nonracial in purpose and operation. Simply because a class defined by ancestry does not include all members of the race does not suffice to make the classification race neutral. Here, the State’s argument is undermined by its express racial purpose and by its actual effects.

The ancestral inquiry mandated by the State implicates the same grave concerns as a classification specifying a particular race by name. One of the principal reasons race is treated as a forbidden classification is that it demeans the dignity and worth of a person to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities. An inquiry into ancestral lines is not consistent with respect based on the unique personality each of us possesses, a respect the Constitution itself secures in its concern for persons and citizens.

The ancestral inquiry mandated by the State is forbidden by the Fifteenth Amendment for the further reason that the use of racial classifications is corruptive of the whole legal order democratic elections seek to preserve. The law itself may not become the instrument for generating the prejudice and hostility all too often directed against persons whose particular ancestry is disclosed by their ethnic characteristics and cultural traditions. “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81, 100 (1943). Ancestral tracing of this sort achieves its purpose by creating a legal category which employs the same mechanisms, and causes the same injuries, as laws or statutes that use race by name. The State’s electoral restriction enacts a race-based voting qualification.


The State offers three principal defenses of its vot-
ing law, any of which, it contends, allows it to prevail even if the classification is a racial one under the Fif-
teenth Amendment. We examine, and reject, each of these arguments.


The most far reaching of the State’s arguments is that exclusion of non-Hawaiians from voting is permitted under our cases allowing the differential treatment of certain members of Indian tribes. The decisions of this Court, interpreting the effect of treaties and congressional enactments on the subject, have held that various tribes retained some elements of quasi-sovereign authority, even after cession of their lands to the United States. See Brendale v. Confederated Tribes and Bands of Yakima Nation, 492 U.S. 408, 425 (1989) (plurality opinion); Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe, 435 U.S. 191, 208 (1978). The retained tribal authority relates to self-governance. Brendale, supra, at 425 (plurality opinion). In reliance on that theory the Court has sustained a federal provision giving employment preferences to persons of tribal ancestry. Mancari, 417 U.S., at 553—555. The Mancari case, and the theory upon which it rests, are invoked by the State to defend its decision to restrict voting for the OHA trustees, who are charged so directly with protecting the interests of native Hawaiians.

If Hawaii’s restriction were to be sustained under Mancari we would be required to accept some beginning premises not yet established in our case law. Among other postulates, it would be necessary to conclude that Congress, in reciting the purposes for the transfer of lands to the State–and in other enactments such as the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and the Joint Resolution of 1993–has determined that native Hawaiians have a status like that of Indians in organized tribes, and that it may, and has, delegated to the State a broad authority to preserve that status. These propositions would raise questions of considerable moment and difficulty. It is a matter of some dispute, for instance, whether Congress may treat the native Hawaiians as it does the Indian tribes. Compare Van Dyke, The Political Status of the Hawaiian People, 17 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 95 (1998), with Benjamin, Equal Protection and the Special Relationship: The Case of Native Hawaiians, 106 Yale L. J. 537 (1996). We can stay far off that difficult terrain, however.

The State’s argument fails for a more basic reason. Even were we to take the substantial step of finding authority in Congress, delegated to the State, to treat Hawaiians or native Hawaiians as tribes, Congress may not authorize a State to create a voting scheme of this sort.

Of course, as we have established in a series of cases, Congress may fulfill its treaty obligations and its responsibilities to the Indian tribes by enacting legislation dedicated to their circumstances and needs. See Washington v. Washington State Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Assn., 443 U.S. 658, 673, n. 20 (1979) (treaties securing preferential fishing rights); United States v. Antelope, 430 U.S. 641, 645—647 (1977) (exclusive federal jurisdiction over crimes committed by Indians in Indian country); Delaware Tribal Business Comm. v. Weeks, 430 U.S. 73, 84—85 (1977) (distribution of tribal property); Moe v. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Flathead Reservation, 425 U.S. 463, 479—480 (1976) (Indian immunity from state taxes); Fisher v. District Court of Sixteenth Judicial Dist. of Mont., 424 U.S. 382, 390—391 (1976) (per curiam) (exclusive tribal court jurisdiction over tribal adoptions). As we have observed, “every piece of legislation dealing with Indian tribes and reservations … single[s] out for special treatment a constituency of tribal Indians.” Mancari, supra, at 552.

Mancari, upon which many of the above cases rely, presented the somewhat different issue of a preference in hiring and promoting at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a preference which favored individuals who were “‘one-fourth or more degree Indian blood and . . . member[s] of a Federally-recognized tribe.’” 417 U.S., at 553, n. 24 (quoting 44 BIAM 335, 3.1 (1972)). Although the classification had a racial component, the Court found it important that the preference was “not directed towards a ‘racial’ group consisting of ‘Indians,’” but rather “only to members of ‘federally recognized’ tribes.” 417 U.S., at 553, n.24. “In this sense,” the Court held, “the preference [was] political rather than racial in nature.” Ibid.; see also id., at 554 (“The preference, as applied, is granted to Indians not as a discrete racial group, but, rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities whose lives and activities are governed by the BIA in a unique fashion”). Because the BIA preference could be “tied rationally to the fulfillment of Congress’ unique obligation toward the Indians,” and was “reasonably and rationally designed to further Indian self-government,” the Court held that it did not offend the Constitution. Id., at 555. The opinion was careful to note, however, that the case was confined to the authority of the BIA, an agency described as “sui generis.” Id., at 554.

Hawaii would extend the limited exception of Mancari to a new and larger dimension. The State contends that “one of the very purposes of OHA–and the challenged voting provision–is to afford Hawaiians a measure of self-governance,” and so it fits the model of Mancari. Brief for Respondent 34. It does not follow from Mancari, however, that Congress may authorize a State to establish a voting scheme that limits the electorate for its public officials to a class of tribal Indians, to the exclusion of all non-Indian citizens.

The tribal elections established by the federal statutes the State cites illuminate its error. See id., at 22 (citing, e.g., the Menominee Restoration Act, 25 U.S.C. § 903b and the Indian Reorganization Act, 25 U.S.C. § 476). If a non-Indian lacks a right to vote in tribal elections, it is for the reason that such elections are the internal affair of a quasi-sovereign. The OHA elections, by contrast, are the affair of the State of Hawaii. OHA is a state agency, established by the State Constitution, responsible for the administration of state laws and obligations. See Haw. Const., Art. XII, §§5—6. The Hawaiian Legislature has declared that OHA exists to serve “as the principal public agency in th[e] State responsible for the performance, development, and coordination of programs and activities relating to native Hawaiians and Hawaiians.” Haw. Rev. Stat. §10—3(3)); see also Lodging by Petitioner, Tab 6, OHA Annual Report 1993—94, p. 5 (May 27, 1994) (admitting that “OHA is technically a part of the Hawai’i state government,” while asserting that “it operates as a semi-autonomous entity”). Foremost among the obligations entrusted to this agency is the administration of a share of the revenues and proceeds from public lands, granted to Hawaii to “be held by said State as a public trust.” Admission Act §§5(b), (f), 73 Stat. 5, 6; see Haw. Const., Art. XII, §4.

The delegates to the 1978 constitutional convention explained the position of OHA in the state structure:

“The committee intends that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs will be independent from the executive branch and all other branches of government although it will assume the status of a state agency. The chairman may be an ex officio member of the governor’s cabinet. The status of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is to be unique and special… . The committee developed this office based on the model of the University of Hawaii. In particular, the committee desired to use this model so that the office could have maximum control over its budget, assets and personnel. The committee felt that it was important to arrange a method whereby the assets of Hawaiians could be kept separate from the rest of the state treasury.” 1 Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of Hawaii of 1978, Standing Committee Rep. No. 59, at 645.

Although it is apparent that OHA has a unique position under state law, it is just as apparent that it remains an arm of the State.

The validity of the voting restriction is the only question before us. As the court of appeals did, we assume the validity of the underlying administrative structure and trusts, without intimating any opinion on that point. Nonetheless, the elections for OHA trustee are elections of the State, not of a separate quasi-sovereign, and they are elections to which the Fifteenth Amendment applies. To extend Mancari to this context would be to permit a State, by racial classification, to fence out whole classes of its citizens from decisionmaking in critical state affairs. The Fifteenth Amendment forbids this result.


Hawaii further contends that the limited voting franchise is sustainable under a series of cases holding that the rule of one person, one vote does not pertain to certain special purpose districts such as water or irrigation districts. See Ball v. James, 451 U.S. 355 (1981); Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage Dist., 410 U.S. 719 (1973). Just as the Mancari argument would have involved a significant extension or new application of that case, so too it is far from clear that the Salyer line of cases would be at all applicable to statewide elections for an agency with the powers and responsibilities of OHA.

We would not find those cases dispositive in any event, however. The question before us is not the one-person, one-vote requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment, but the race neutrality command of the Fifteenth Amendment. Our special purpose district cases have not suggested that compliance with the one-person, one-vote rule of the Fourteenth Amendment somehow excuses compliance with the Fifteenth Amendment. We reject that argument here. We held four decades ago that state authority over the boundaries of political subdivisions, “extensive though it is, is met and overcome by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” Gomillion, 364 U.S., at 345. The Fifteenth Amendment has independent meaning and force. A State may not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, and this law does so.


Hawaii’s final argument is that the voting restriction does no more than ensure an alignment of interests between the fiduciaries and the beneficiaries of a trust. Thus, the contention goes, the restriction is based on beneficiary status rather than race.

As an initial matter, the contention founders on its own terms, for it is not clear that the voting classification is symmetric with the beneficiaries of the programs OHA administers. Although the bulk of the funds for which OHA is responsible appears to be earmarked for the benefit of “native Hawaiians,” the State permits both “native Hawaiians” and “Hawaiians” to vote for the office of trustee. The classification thus appears to create, not eliminate, a differential alignment between the identity of OHA trustees and what the State calls beneficiaries.

Hawaii’s argument fails on more essential grounds. The State’s position rests, in the end, on the demeaning premise that citizens of a particular race are somehow more qualified than others to vote on certain matters. That reasoning attacks the central meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Amendment applies to “any election in which public issues are decided or public officials selected.” Terry, 345 U.S., at 468. There is no room under the Amendment for the concept that the right to vote in a particular election can be allocated based on race. Race cannot qualify some and disqualify others from full participation in our democracy. All citizens, regardless of race, have an interest in selecting officials who make policies on their behalf, even if those policies will affect some groups more than others. Under the Fifteenth Amendment voters are treated not as members of a distinct race but as members of the whole citizenry. Hawaii may not assume, based on race, that petitioner or any other of its citizens will not cast a principled vote. To accept the position advanced by the State would give rise to the same indignities, and the same resulting tensions and animosities, the Amendment was designed to eliminate. The voting restriction under review is prohibited by the Fifteenth Amendment.

* * *

When the culture and way of life of a people are all but engulfed by a history beyond their control, their sense of loss may extend down through generations; and their dismay may be shared by many members of the larger community. As the State of Hawaii attempts to address these realities, it must, as always, seek the political consensus that begins with a sense of shared purpose. One of the necessary beginning points is this principle: The Constitution of the United States, too, has become the heritage of all the citizens of Hawaii.

In this case the Fifteenth Amendment invalidates the electoral qualification based on ancestry. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.