TMT back in court

  • An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.

The saga of the Thirty Meter Telescope will return to the state Supreme Court this week as oral arguments are held for the project’s land use permit.

The appeal of the permit for building on Maunakea, a mountain some Native Hawaiians consider sacred, follows the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approving the document last September after a lengthy second contested case hearing.


But it’s not new territory for the justices. In December 2015, the high court overturned the permit because the Land Board previously voted to approve it before holding the first contested case, a quasi-judicial hearing, thereby depriving opponents of due process. The ruling led to a redo of the contested case.

It’s not known when the court will rule on the issue, or a separate appeal regarding the project’s sublease with the University of Hawaii. Oral arguments for that case occurred in March. No ruling has been issued.

Both sides have a lot at stake after years of legal wrangling and protests. Supporters say the next-generation observatory, last pegged at $1.4 billion, will help unlock mysteries of the universe and be a boost for education and economic development on the island.

Opponents say the mountain is already overdeveloped and that no new telescopes should be built even if others are removed. Some cite deep spiritual connections to the place, while others focus on environmental concerns.

Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the original contested case petitioners, said she hopes the court will give the case another thorough review.

“One thing I can say is at least they are familiar” with the case, she said. “We just hope for balance and justice. I think that’s the best we can do.”

One difference is the number of parties participating in the appeal.

In addition to the six original petitioners, 14 others joined the second contested case against the project and are part of the appeal. Pisciotta said there are two attorneys representing different appellants.

Perpetuating Unique Education Opportunities, a pro-TMT group led by Native Hawaiians, will join UH and TMT International Observatory in arguing for the project.

Pisciotta said each side will be given one hour to argue their case.

TIO’s partners include Japan, China, India and Canada, in addition to the University of California and Caltech.

A spokesman for TIO said the organization is “pleased with the progress made over the past year and we remain hopeful that TMT can still be built on Maunakea.”


The telescope could reach first light in 2028 if built on Maunakea. TIO has selected a backup site in the Canary Islands if it can’t build in Hawaii.

Email Tom Callis at

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