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Hawai'i Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments for Constitutional Amendment for Public Education

Wayne Yoshioka

The Hawai’i Supreme heard oral arguments today on the Constitutional Amendment to support public education.

Credit Eugene Tanner, PBN
Corporation Counsel Donna Leong

Corporation Counsel, Donna Leong, lead attorney for the Counties of Honolulu, the Big Island and Kaua’i, asked the Hawai’i Supreme Court to invalidate the constitutional amendment question because it cannot be clearly understood by the average voter.

“Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property, to be used to support public education.  That is the ballot question.  The petitioner counties raise two issues:  Is the ballot question unclear and misleading.  If so, are the counties entitled to pre-election relief.”

State Attorney General Russell Suzuki argued that the state circuit court ruled the ballot question is valid and an appeal by the Counties or petitioners is pending.

Credit Eugene Tanner, PBN
Attorney General Russel Suzuki

“What the petitioners are doing is, they were denied their relief in the Circuit Court and now they’re coming here before you to get a second bite at the apple.”

But, the five Supreme Court Justices pressed the Attorney General on language clarity.  This exchange was between Associate Justice Paula Nakamura and Attorney General Suzuki.

(Nakamura) “Suppose if I had the money to buy a house for my daughter.  Is that included as investment property? (Suzuki) I think it’s to be defined by the legislature. (Nakamura) If I’m not buying this house as an investment, and not rent out, how do I know as a voter, that that’s not going to be taxed?  (Suzuki) Then I think you should probably vote “no.”

Credit Eugene Tanner, PBN
Hawai'i Supreme Court

Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna says there is no guarantee that public education funding will be increased and asked Suzuki about future implementation.

(McKenna) The issue, really, to me, is whether or not the voters would understand that 25 years from now, a totally different legislature, could decide to completely fund public education based on real property taxes.  (Suzuki) ‘As provided by law’ gives them that power.”

Associate Justice Richard Pollack asked Suzuki if an average voter would understand the intent of amending the constitution.

(Pollack) Does the question inform the average voter that the exclusive authority of the counties to tax real property is being amended. It’s being altered.  Is there any indication that the counties are already taxing investment real property.  So this is a double-tax, potentially? (Suzuki) I think the average reader reading that provision would understand that this is something that’s gonna be an additional charge.” 

Chief Justice Mark Rectenwald concluded the hour–fifteen minute presentation of oral arguments.

“Thank you for your arguments today.  The Court will take this matter under advisement.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka. 

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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