Superior Court Associate Judge David A. Wiseman, who gave the order Friday for CNMI banks to release government funds to pay a land compensation claim, agreed yesterday to temporarily suspend the directive.
In a hearing yesterday on the government's motion for a stay on the writ of execution, Wiseman said his tentative ruling is to grant the government's motion pending appeal.
At the same time, Wiseman considered “bizarre, outrageous, and false” the language that assistant attorney general Charles E. Brasington used in appealing the writ of execution. Wiseman said he is considering bringing disciplinary action against Brasington before the CNMI Bar.
Wiseman's writ of execution directed banks in the CNMI to release funds belonging to the CNMI government in order to pay the land compensation claim of 80-year-old Luisa Borja Quitugua, amounting to $77,137 plus interest.
Wiseman took exception to the language used by government lawyers in appealing the writ of execution, characterizing it as exaggerated and unsubstantiated.
He said that Brasington, as the author of the motion, falsely stated a threat of a complete and total shutdown of government services. He said Brasington wrongfully gave a gross misconception of what to expect if the writ of execution goes through.
“In my opinion, you owe them, the people of the CNMI and this court an apology for your bizarre, outrageous, and unsubstantiated predictions of death, injuries, deprivations of all public services whatsoever,” Wiseman said.
In an interview after the hearing, Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson told reporters that the CNMI has accounts in two of three banks that are subject of the writ of execution.
Larson said the two banks have legal questions about the writ so they froze the government's bank accounts.
“So we have no access to any funds for the last three days. And that's the difficulty because we're running payroll this week,” she said.
Larson also disclosed that medical referral accounts have been frozen, too.
“So if there is any patient off-island receiving treatment, there is no way that anyone can write checks against those accounts. So their impact is rather significant. Everything was frozen,” she said.
Writ of execution
In 2005, the Superior Court awarded Quitugua $77,137 plus interest for her land compensation claim. Seven years later or in November 2012, the government paid Quitugua just $10,000.
Quitugua then asked the court to issue a writ of execution, seeking from the government all funds it has in CNMI banks to satisfy the full amount.
In granting a writ of execution Friday, Wiseman ordered the Bank of Guam, Bank of Hawaii, and First Hawaiian Bank to release and deliver to Quitugua's lawyer, F. Matthew Smith's law firm, the funds they are holding that belong to the CNMI government.
Wiseman said any funds received by Quitugua shall be kept in Smith's trust account and will not be disbursed without a court order.
“A report shall be made to the court within 48 hours of obtaining any funds under this writ. Upon receiving such report, the court shall then determine the amount, including applicable interest, due to [Quitugua],” the judge said in the writ order.
A day later, the government, through Brasington, filed a motion to stay the writ of execution.
Brasington said with the writ of execution will result in the CNMI government being unable to pay the salaries of employees of all three branches of government.
“The Commonwealth will be unable to buy gas for fire trucks and police vehicles. The Commonwealth will be unable to provide education or pay teachers,” he said.
Brasington said the order, together with the precedent it would create for other land compensation judgments totaling up to $18 million, would force the Commonwealth into insolvency and will hamper its ability to meet payroll for all three branches of government, make bond payments, pay for utilities, and meeting other obligations.
Brasington said the writ of execution threatens the residents and dependents of the Commonwealth “with the potential loss of life and limb.”
The Commonwealth, he said, will be unable to pay its emergency medical technicians, firefighters, police, lawyers, judges, and other law enforcement officers.
“People will die or suffer serious irreversible injury that could have otherwise been averted,” he said.
“Fires will rage, consuming structures, jungle, and the human and animal life residing therein. Crimes will go uninvestigated and perpetrators of violence will go unpunished,” he added.
In Quitugua's opposition to the stay, attorney Jennifer Dockter said the government cannot show any likelihood of success on the merits as its arguments “meekly attempt to distinguish well-reasoned, well-developed case law that is simply undistinguishable.”
“A stay on the writ of execution is unnecessary, has not been shown to be necessary, and does nothing but permit continued deprivation of sacred rights,” Dockter said.
She said the writ will not break the Commonwealth.
“A government [that] denies its citizens their sacred constitutional rights and then calls the remedy for those violations senseless is a government that is already broken,” Dockter said.
Without any evidence, the government speculates wildly about a coming Armageddon if the writ is executed, she added.
“Wild speculation about raging fires and dying animals, while appropriately suited for television dramas, does not have a place in this motion,” she said.
Dockter pointed out that the judgment at issue is only about $140,000-not $18 million.
Brasington appeared in court but it was assistant attorney general Viola Alepuyo who argued for the government.
Before announcing his tentative ruling, Wiseman said the government's brief raises what he deems as a major false alarm by its prediction of a total demise of the CNMI if the writ is not stayed.
To use the words of Quitugua, the judge said, Brasington has speculated about a coming Armageddon.
“Hopefully, the public's confidence in the Judiciary has not been too affected by your statements,” Wiseman said.
Dockter told reporters after the hearing that Quitugua, who attended the hearing on a wheelchair, is already desperate.
“She's extraordinarily upset and she fears that she's not going to have resolution in her lifetime. And I think that's a real threat,” Dockter said.
Quitugua's land compensation claim has been pending for 30 years now.