HONOLULU - Hawaii lawmakers began considering proposals Thursday that would ban the state from selling former monarchy lands until Native Hawaiian claims to those lands are resolved.
If the Legislature passes a law preventing the state from discarding these lands, it could effectively neutralize a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that puts their ownership in doubt.
Fifteen lawmakers on the Legislative Hawaiian Caucus heard from attorneys on both sides Thursday as they weigh whether to pass a law putting a moratorium on ceded land sales.
Attorney General Mark Bennett made his case that the 1.2 million acres of ceded lands belong to all the people of the state, not just Native Hawaiians.
''The state owns the ceded lands,'' Bennett told the lawmakers while about 60 people looked on in the audience at the state Capitol. ''We didn't take this appeal because we thought it would make us more popular. We did it because we believed what we were doing was the right thing to do under the laws and constitution of Hawaii.''
Some lawmakers - especially those on the Hawaiian Caucus - are suggesting a measure that would entirely prohibit sale or transfer of ceded lands unless the federal government passes a law to reconcile wrongs done during the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy.
Legislation pending in Congress and sponsored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka would create a framework for a Native Hawaiian governing entity within the state, with rights and powers similar to those of American Indians. Some envision the ceded lands as the future land base for a Hawaiian government.
Other ideas on the state level would bar ceded land transactions unless they're approved by a majority or two-thirds of the Legislature.
''The Congress of the United States of American has admitted the overthrow was illegal,'' said Office of Hawaiian Affairs attorney Sherry Broder. ''Having a moratorium on the sale of land . . . is something that's very appropriate here in Hawaii.''
These vast areas of ceded lands span the Hawaiian Islands, and they include airport, resort, conservation, university and forest lands. They generate revenues in excess of $75 million yearly for the state.
Sen. Clayton Hee, a former OHA chairman, said state lawmakers need to step in because it's likely the U.S. Supreme Court will rule that these lands are the property of the state - not the Hawaiians.
''We want to do this as soon as possible, and ideally before the Supreme Court rules,'' said Hee, D-Kahuku-Kaneohe. ''It wouldn't pre-empt the Supreme Court. It would fortify the argument . . . that no land sales should occur until reconciliation with the native people occurs.''
The high court will hear the case Feb. 25, and lawmakers are racing to pass a measure before the court can make a decision.
Gov. Linda Lingle said she would go forward with the appeal to the Supreme Court "to make clear our position that these lands that were given to the state, that were ceded over when we became a state, those belong to all the people of Hawaii."