Civil Rights Activist and Attorney Dies

Remembering kama’aina John Goemans

John Goemans, a revolutionary attorney well known for his initiation of the Rice v. Cayetano case, passed away on Monday, June 15th in a California hospice. He had spent the past few years in California with his sister. Mr. Goemans was passionately involved in various civil rights cases in the state of Hawaii and will be remembered as a kama’aina with a vision of racial equality for Hawaii.

Goemans was born in 1934 in Milwaukee. He earned his undergraduate degree from Brown University and his law degree from the University of Virginia, where he was Senator Ted Kennedy’s roommate. After Goemans moved to the islands in 1959, he helped elect Ted’s brother, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency by campaigning for votes in Hawaii.[1]

His political involvement on the islands ranged from running a United States Department of State office on O’ahu to serving in the State House of Representatives in the early 1960’s. He also worked as an aide to Senator Malama Solomon in the 1980’s.[2]

Rice v. Cayetano, perhaps one of the most famous civil rights Supreme Court cases, was sparked by Goemans’ commitment to equality and justice. The case was initiated when Goemans heard that public money would fund the formation of the Hawaii Sovereignty Elections Council, a council that allowed only native Hawaiians to vote. Mr. Goemans helped Freddy Rice challenge this policy. The Rice case was filed in 1996 and decided, in Rice’s favor, in 2000.[3] The case ultimately declared that the policy in question was in violation of the 15th Amendment. Civil rights attorney Bill Burgess, a personal friend of Mr. Goemans, described the case as “one of those landmark cases that only comes around once in a while.”

Goemans also spoke out against racial discrimination in the 2000 Patrick Barrett case and the 2007 Kamehameha Schools case. The Barrett case came about when Barrett applied for a small business loan from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. He later learned that OHA loans exclusively to native Hawaiians, which led many to question the constitutionality of the organization[4]. In May 2007, John Goemans represented a non-native Hawaiian student who sought admission into Kamehameha Schools. The case was on its way to the Supreme Court when Kamehameha Schools secretly approached the plaintiff with a settlement offer.[5]

Those who knew Goemans describe him as charming and enjoyable. He was very social, surrounded by many friends. Goemans was one of the most influential actors for racial equality in Hawaii. He rejected the idea that party politics played a role in the state’s civil rights issues and instead acknowledged the issues as questions of fundamental American values. John Goemans’ life has greatly impacted the state of Hawaii and the nation as a whole. He will be greatly missed.


[1] Walte, David, “’Liberal’ sparks Hawaiians-only firestorm,’” Honolulu Advertiser, 27 October 2003: http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2003/Oct/27/ln/ln08a.html (accessed June 16, 2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Webster, Jessica, “Barrett’s standing on OHA constitutionality questioned,” Honolulu Advertiser, 3 July 2001: http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2001/Jul/03/ln/ln08a.html (accessed June 16, 2008).

[5] Kobayashi, Ken, “$7M: An attorney involved in a challenge to Kamehameha Schools’ Hawaiians-only policy reveals the amount of a settlement,” Star Bulletin 13, no. 40 (2008): http://archives.starbulletin.com/2008/02/09/news/story02.html (accessed June 16, 2008).

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