OCTOBER TERM, 1999
RICE v. CAYETANO, GOVERNOR OF HAWAII
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 Mfairs, 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
of the democratic process, the exercise of the voting franchise. It protects all persons, not just members of a particular race. Important precedents give instruction in the instant case. The Amendment was quite sufficient to invalidate a grandfather clause that did not mention race but instead used ancestry in an attempt to confine and restrict the voting franchise, Guinn v. United States, 238 U. S. 347, 364-365; and it sufficed to strike down the white primary systems designed to exclude one racial class (at least) from voting, see, e. g., Terry v. Adams, 345 U. S. 461, 469-470. The voting structure in this case is neither subtle nor indirect; it specifically grants the vote to persons of the defined ancestry and to no others. Ancestry can be a proxy for race. It is that proxy here. For centuries Hawaii was isolated from migration. The inhabitants shared common physical characteristics, and by 1778 they had a common culture. The provisions at issue reflect the State's effort to preserve that commonality to the present day. In interpreting the Reconstruction Era civil rights laws this Court has 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-Khazraji, 481 U. S. 604, 613. The very object of the statutory definition here is to treat the early Hawaiians as a distinct people, commanding their own recognition and respect. The history of the State's definition also demonstrates that the State has used ancestry as a racial definition and for a racial purpose. The drafters of the definitions of "Hawaiian" and "native Hawaiian" emphasized the explicit tie to race. The State's additional argument that the restriction is race neutral because it differentiates even among Polynesian people based on the date of an ancestor's residence in Hawaii is undermined by the classification's express racial purpose and its actual effects. The ancestral inquiry in this case implicates the same grave concerns as a classification specifying a particular race by name, for it demeans a person's dignity and worth to be judged by ancestry instead of by his or her own merit and essential qualities. The State's ancestral inquiry is forbidden by the Fifteenth Amendment for the further reason that using 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. The State's electoral restriction enacts a race-based voting qualification. Pp. 511-517.
(b) The State's three principal defenses of its voting law are rejected.
It argues first that the exclusion of non-Hawaiians from voting is permitted under this Court's cases allowing the differential treatment of Indian tribes. However, even if Congress had the authority, delegated