A U.S. Supreme Court justice on Friday issued a temporary stay blocking the counting of votes in an election that would be a significant step toward Native Hawaiian self-governance.
Justice Anthony Kennedy's order also stops the certification of any winners pending further direction from him or the entire court.
Native Hawaiians are voting to elect delegates for a convention next year to come up with a self-governance document to be ratified by Native Hawaiians. Voting ends Monday.
A group of Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians is challenging the election, arguing Hawaii residents who don't have Native Hawaiian ancestry are being excluded from the vote. They argue it's an unconstitutional, racially exclusive process.
The ruling is a victory on many fronts, said Kelii Akina, one of the Native Hawaiian plaintiffs and president of public policy think-tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
"First, it's a victory for Native Hawaiians who have been misrepresented by government leaders trying to turn us into a government-recognized tribe," he said in a statement. "Secondly, it is a victory for all people of Hawaii and the United States as it affirms racial equality."
Nai Aupuni, the nonprofit organization guiding the election process, is encouraging voters to continue casting votes, said Bill Meheula, an attorney representing the group.
"Reorganizing a government is not easy and it takes the courage and will of the candidates to take the first step to unify Hawaiians," he said in a statement. "Help them by voting now."
U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright in Honolulu ruled last month the purpose of the private election is to establish self-determination for the indigenous people of Hawaii. Those elected won't be able to alter state or local laws, he said.
The challengers appealed and also filed an emergency motion to block the votes from being counted. Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the emergency motion, prompting the challengers to appeal to the high court.
"Enormous political, social and economic consequences are at stake," the application to the Supreme Court said. "The delegates chosen through this election will decide whether to adopt a new government that will affect every individual living in the state, as well as hundreds of thousands of individuals identified as Native Hawaiians."
They argued without Supreme Court intervention, there would be "no remedy if the votes in this election are counted and the results certified," the application said. "This election cannot be undone."
The Associated Press