Having an elected instead of a governor-appointed attorney general in the CNMI now rests with voters, but lawmakers and the Fitial administration are weighing in on why voters should mark their ballot “yes” or “no” on an elected AG initiative. Both sides have strong points and merits.
House Legislative Initiative 17-2, authored by Rep. Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), amends Article III Section 11 of the NMI Constitution to authorize the election of an attorney general.
At present, the attorney general is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
The CNMI is one of only 10 U.S. jurisdictions that still have an appointed attorney general, according to a report prepared by the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations, which recommended HLI 17-2's passage. Guam also now has an elected AG.
Dela Cruz said the recent process impeaching the governor “has not only made it important to have an elected AG but has proven what happens when the highest law official is under the wings of a governor.”
He was referring to Gov. Benigno R. Fitial's former attorney general, Edward T. Buckingham, who was mired in controversy since at least 2010.
“Corruption can run rampant and when CNMI and federal laws are ignored blatantly, I plead and ask all who are voting to support HLI 17-2 authorizing election of the attorney general. Let's do it all for our Commonwealth. Again I say in order to begin the restoration of good governance, we must elect our AG,” Dela Cruz told Saipan Tribune.
Dela Cruz cited Buckingham's alleged violation of the Hatch Act when he hosted the governor's delegate candidate in 2010, the AG and the governor's approval of a sole-source $392,406 ARRA management contract to a newly-resigned Cabinet member, Buckingham and Fitial's signing of a $190.8-million power purchase agreement for 25 years, and Buckingham's departure from the CNMI with the help of police and other higher-ups that shielded him from being served summons to face charges of public corruption and Hatch Act violations.
Floor leader George Camacho (R-Saipan), the only House member that voted against the elected AG initiative, said yesterday that “the fears of having an attorney general appointed by the governor is that, should the governor commit a crime, people fear that the AG will not prosecute a sitting governor whom the AG works under.”
Camacho said people also fear that the AG is “too political and will not do his or her duties for being in a 'political' office.”
He said the solution they offer for the Office of the Attorney General to be free from the governor and from politics is to make the office an elected one, “to be elected at large by the people and only answer to the masses.”
“Interestingly, in order to remove politics from the Office of the Attorney General, then it should be an elected office? I disagree with this idea for the fact that any election, inclusive of the retention of judges or board position, having them elected is political in itself,” Camacho said.
Camacho said “politics is around us and is very difficult to completely remove.”
“It is human to favor one over the other. That is just how we as humans operate. It would be very difficult to imagine how many prosecutions will be performed during an election year of an attorney general. I am certain that the attorney general will be less harsh and less willing to do his or her duty and at the same time ask the people in return for their votes,” he said.
Camacho said the issue of an appointed AG over an elected AG will forever be debated but he feels that “having the AG answer to only one person, the governor, is less political than having to ask the public at large for their approval.”
“Having an attorney general elected will only increase politics to that office,” he added.
Press secretary Angel Demapan said yesterday that the Fitial administration believes that there are pros and cons to having an elected AG.
One particular concern is the possibility that as an elected position, the true intent of justice may be “compromised” by an incumbent elected AG's pursuit of re-election, he said.
“If anything, rather than 'depoliticizing' this position, it may very well add even more political pressure instead. Quite frankly, we need to recognize the possibility that an elected AG could very well use the opportunity as a springboard for further political aspiration. We wouldn't want to see an elected AG go against the Legislature or the administration to further his agenda simply for political reasons and not for the interest of justice,” Demapan said.
The press secretary added that while this a very contentious issue, “ultimately, the administration recognizes that it's up to the people to decide.”
But still, Rep. Ralph Demapan (Cov-Saipan) believes an elected AG is better than the current system of having the governor appoint an AG, the highest law enforcement officer in the CNMI.
“People should vote yes to the elected AG initiative to help make the AG position free from political interference,” he said, also referring to the controversies involving Buckingham.
Rep. Demapan chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations, which recommended passage of the elected AG initiative.
Under the elected AG initiative, the elected AG would have a term of four years and a two-term limit; must be a resident and domiciliary of the CNMI for at least five years instead of the current three years; must be at least 35 years old; will have a salary of $150,000 a year subject to the Legislature's modification; and may only be removed for cause.
If voters approve it, the first election for AG will be in 2014.
Besides the elected AG initiative, there are two others on the ballot: the pension obligation bond initiative and the Northern Marianas College mission statement initiative.