HONOLULU (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that an election can go forward to choose delegates to draft a document allowing Native Hawaiians to govern themselves.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright explained the election is a private poll — not one run by the state — as he denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the vote set for next month.
Native Hawaiians are the last remaining indigenous group in the U.S. that hasn't been allowed to establish its own government.
In 2011, the state passed a law recognizing Hawaiians as the first people of Hawaii and laid the foundation for Native Hawaiians to establish their own government.
The election is intended to choose delegates to draft a self-governing document that would be submitted to Native Hawaiians for possible ratification.
Bill Meheula, an attorney for the organization Nai Aupuni which determined election criteria, hailed the ruling as "awesome."
"We've been looking forward to this for decades, since the 1970s," Meheula said.
Meheula said self-determination has been shown to help indigenous peoples such as Native Hawaiians struggling with low socio-economic status.
The election in Hawaii was challenged in a lawsuit filed in August that argued it was unconstitutional for the state to be involved in a race-based election.
The plaintiffs include two non-Hawaiians who aren't eligible for the voter roll and two Native Hawaiians who say their names appear on the roll without their consent.
Two Native Hawaiians who said they didn't want to participate in the process of self-determination also joined the complaint.
Judge Seabright, in an oral ruling from the bench, said the poll is a private election for the purpose of establishing self-determination for the indigenous people of Hawaii. Those elected won't be able to alter state or local laws, he said.
He also noted that the vote will not lead to the election of any federal, state or county officeholders.
Even if the election were found to be state-run, Seabright said, Hawaii has a compelling interest in organizing a Native Hawaiian community and that wouldn't be possible unless participation in the election is restricted to Native Hawaiians.
The election is being held with the help of nearly $2.6 million in grant funding from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency tasked with improving the well-being of Native Hawaiians. The plaintiffs pointed to the funding as evidence of the state's involvement.
Meheula said Nai Aupuni is a private, nonprofit corporation whose grant agreement specifies the Office of Hawaiian Affairs won't have any control.
Kelii Akina, one of the plaintiffs, said he would appeal.
It's "wrong for the state government to use public resources in order to promote a racially discriminatory process," Akina said. "What's really at stake here is not only the constitution of the United States but also the aloha spirit."
The push for self-governing came after former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka tried for a decade but failed to get a bill passed in the U.S. Congress that would give Native Hawaiians the same rights already extended to many Native Americans and Alaska Natives.