Gov. Benigno R. Fitial has already been impeached by the House of Representatives but it will be during a trial at the Senate that will determine whether he will be removed from office, lawmakers said yesterday.
It will also be at the Senate trial where the governor will be given the chance to defend himself, with the help of his legal team. He will not be represented by the Office of the Attorney General, which recommended that he hire private counsel for the trial.
In the United States and its territories such as the CNMI, impeachment is the Legislature's expressed power that allows for formal charges against a civil officer of government for crimes committed in office; in this case, the governor.
The actual trial on the charges against Fitial, and his subsequent removal on conviction on those charges, is separate from the act of impeachment itself.
If Fitial is convicted by the Senate on any of the charges, he automatically loses his seat and Lt. Gov. Eloy Inos will assume the governor's post. The Senate president then becomes lieutenant governor.
Senate President Jude Hofschneider (R-Tinian) said yesterday that the Senate will be ready to handle the impeachment process.
Depending on the rules that the full Senate will adopt upon recommendation of the Special Senate Committee on Impeachment headed by Senate Vice President Ralph Torres (R-Saipan), the governor could have a week or two to respond to the president's letter about the adopted House impeachment resolution before trial begins.
Torres said last night that the special committee will meet again tomorrow to further discuss the draft rules that will govern the process at the Senate.
It is not known yet when the committee will be able to finalize the rules for full Senate adoption.
House Vice Speaker Frank Dela Cruz (IR-Saipan) said, “What happens in the Senate, we have no control over.”
He said depending on the speaker and the leadership's decision, some members of the House-maybe four of them-will serve as “managers” or “prosecutors” during the trial at the Senate.
But because the Senate has yet to come up with rules, there is no telling whether this will be allowed.
The House impeached the governor on 13 charges of felony, corruption and neglect of duty yesterday. Five more articles of impeachment will be voted on today.
But while all the 18 articles are expected to be adopted by the House, the governor can be convicted by the Senate on any of those 18 charges.
At least two-thirds or six affirmative votes are needed in the nine-member Senate to convict the governor.
Private citizens interviewed said they hope the Senate will “also do the right thing,” by convicting the governor. House minority bloc members said there is “insufficient evidence” in the impeachment resolution and shouldn't be adopted by the House in the first place.
Fitial is the first CNMI governor and the first from the U.S. territories to be impeached. If he is convicted in the Senate, he will only be the ninth governor in the United States to be removed from office.