25 May 2014

Northern Marianas Governor rejects legislation creating political status commission that would review dependency status


Governor Eloy S. Inos of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI) has vetoed a bill creating a new commission to examine whether the people desire continuing the islands’ current political relationship with the United States.

He said it is doubtful that such commission could “unilaterally” alter that relationship adding that one of the bill’s provisions is “almost certain” to be unconstitutional.

The veto comes almost two months after the CNMI marked on March 24 the 38th year of the 1976 signing of the mutually negotiated Covenant that made the Northern Marianas a part of the American political family, and paved the way for its qualified people to become U.S. citizens in 1986.

Rep. Trenton Conner (Ind-Tinian), chairman of the Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee that reviewed and recommended the bill’s passage, said he was disappointed with the veto.

He said other members are still reviewing the governor’s message to see whether they would try to override the veto.

“I am not in conformance with the opinion. There is uniqueness in the Commonwealth’s relationship with the United States pursuant to the Covenant,” he said.

House Bill 18-112, House Draft 1, authored by Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan), seeks to create a Second Marianas Political Status Commission to examine whether the people of the CNMI desire continuing its relationship with the U.S. pursuant to the Covenant.

The proposed commission would also determine whether that continuation of relationship is in the CNMI people’s best interest, or whether some other political status would better enable them to fulfill their “aspirations of full and meaningful self-government.”

The governor cited these reasons for vetoing the bill: unconstitutional provision and a unilateral alteration of the political relationship between the CNMI and the U.S.

Section 4 of the bill states partly that anyone appointed to serve on the commission shall be, among other things, “a person of Northern Marianas descent as defined in Article XII 4 of the NMI Constitution.”

“Unfortunately, it is almost certain that the emphasized language violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I 6 of the Commonwealth Constitution,” the governor said in his May 9 veto message to House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) and Senate President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan).

Inos added that the equal protection clause prohibits the government from discriminating between similarly situated individuals. Importantly, he said, the equal protection clause’s prohibitions are not limited to discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

“A court reviewing HB 18-112, HD1 would almost certainly find the requirement that a commission member must be a ‘person of Northern Marianas descent as defined in Article XII 4 of the N.M.I. Constitution’ constitutes invidious discrimination in violation of the equal protection clauses of the United States and Commonwealth Constitutions,” the governor said.

Proponents of the bill said it “doesn’t hurt” to re-examine the CNMI-U.S. political relationship, while others said Covenant Section 902 discussions could be the better venue. Still, others said the Legislature should place the question on the ballot for voters to decide, before creating a commission.

The governor also vetoed two other bills: HB 18-87 and HB 18-1, HS1, SD1.

The first bill intends to punish public officials that issue unlawful orders to subordinates, which the governor said is already part of existing law, among other things. The second bill ratifies the adoption of the 2009 editions of the International Building Code and International Fire Code, but the governor said the measure violates the Constitution, among other things.