Case: Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Issue: In the Joint Resolution to Acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Congress acknowledged and apologized for the United States role in that overthrow. Does that resolution strip Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell, exchange, or transfer 1.2 million acres of state land unless and until it reaches a political settlement with Native Hawaiians about the status of that land?

Background: A group of native Hawaiians contend a Congressional apology entitles them to control more than a million acres of land taken from their ancestors. The disputed land was taken from Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 and later turned over to state control when Hawaii joined the Union in the 1959. Following a Congressional apology for the United States role in helping overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) pushed the land issue into the courts. The OHA, which represents the interests of native Hawaiians, contends that it deserves 100 percent of the proceeds from a proposed transfer of one parcel of state-held land into private interests.

The Hawaii Supreme Court halted that transfer. It ruled in OHA's favor when it put on hold the development plan so the OHA could more thoroughly pursue its claims on the entire 1.2 million acres. The state argues the Congressional apology is just that—an apology and holds no legal significance.

Case: Flores-Figueroa v. United States

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Issue: Whether an illegal alien can also be convicted of aggravated identity theft for using forged documents that he didn't know belonged to another person.

Background: Ignacio Flores-Figueroa found work at an East Moline, Ill. steel mill. The Mexican national took the job under an assumed name and provided his employer with bogus documents to get the job. After six years, Flores-Figueroa decided he wanted to use his real name and presented new but still bogus paperwork to his employer. His bosses became suspicious and reported him to immigration authorities leading to his arrest. He was found guilty of illegally entering the country and sentenced to more than four years behind bars. But he was also convicted of aggravated identity theft tacking on an additional two year sentence.

Flores-Figueroa's second set of identification papers were not only false but had been assigned to real people. That discovery prompted prosecutors to seek the additional charge. Flores-Figueroa claims the aggravated identity theft charge can't be proved because he didn't know his documents actually belonged to someone else. Instead he thought they were simply made-up papers. Even though the statute says a person must "knowingly" use the forged documents, lower courts have agreed with prosecutors that Flores-Figueroa is guilty of aggravated identity theft. The government argues Flores-Figueroa's reading is overly narrow and misses Congress's intent to protect people from identity theft.