Superior Court Associate Judge Joseph Norita Camacho is feared by habitual offenders whenever he bangs his 10-lb stainless steel gavel. That’s because he refuses to budge an inch when faced with repeat offenders who seem to treat the court system like a perpetual revolving door, where they keep getting away with lenient or suspended sentences.
In Camacho’s court, there is no such thing as a “slap on the wrist” against habitual offenders who have no respect for the law.
“Such is the leniency of past courts, it foster a perception that criminals get away with crime,” Camacho once said in describing the past sentences imposed on an ex-convict. In that instance, Camacho slapped the ex-convict with the full maximum sentence of 40 years and six months in prison without the possibility of parole for kidnapping and raping a minor.
“Justice requires an effective deterrent,” Camacho said.
This tough stance against hardened criminals and those convicted of serious crimes has gained for Camacho the monikers “Judge Maximum,” “Hanging Judge,” “Hammer Joe,” or “The Hammer.”
Camacho shrugs this off, saying, “The people deserve a safe community.”
He has become known for rejecting lenient plea agreements and for imposing full maximum sentences. He also requires many convicted persons to serve their prison terms day by day without the possibility of parole, early release, work release, weekend release, or other similar programs.
“The Department of Corrections is not a hotel,” Camacho would always remind lawyers who request that their clients be allowed to report to DOC at a certain date.
Shortly after sentencing, he would order the court marshals to bring convicted persons right away to DOC to start their prison terms.
On the administrative aspect, Camacho is well organized. In 2013, he conducted 11 jury trials and 15 bench trials. This is the most for any judge within a year in local court. In fact, for 2014, his calendar is already filled with jury and bench trials all the way to May.
“We anticipate another busy year. It has been an honor and privilege to serve on the bench. Thank you to judges, justices, and court staff for their support,” Camacho said.
Camacho used to be a police officer before he became a lawyer. He then served as a lawmaker.
When then Superior Court Associate Judge Ramona V. Manglona was confirmed to serve as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the NMI, then-governor Benigno R. Fitial appointed Camacho to the bench in November 2011.
Some people, particularly lawyers, were at the time skeptical of Camacho’s appointment because of his background as a politician. In his first year on the bench, Camacho proved his skeptics and critics wrong.
Among his initial accomplishments were streamlining the jury selection process and reading jury instructions at the beginning of the cases so jurors are well-informed of their duties and responsibilities before the trial begins.
Unlike in the past when trials would take a week or more, trials before Camacho are now in line with the national average of completing trials in three days.
In the past, cases would languish in court for one to three years before going to trial. In his court, parties now have their day in court in about six months.
In his second year, Camacho built upon the foundation he established during his first year on the bench.
Outside the courtrooms, Camacho has been active too. He chairs the CNMI Criminal Justice Information System and chairs the Small Claims Rules Committee. He is also involved with the Junior High School Mock Trial program, and has been sitting as a justice pro temp in the CNMI Supreme Court.
A regular visit to Camacho’s chamber shows his office is the only one that is noticeably always open.
“Because it is public office and open to the people,” Camacho replied when asked about his “open-door policy.”
Camacho’s no-nonsense approach against repeat offenders and sexual abusers, his well-organized dockets, firm rulings, outside courtroom accomplishments, and open policy to the public have gained him the respect of lawyers, law enforcers, and the community.
That is why Judge Joseph Norita Camacho is this year’s Saipan Tribune Person of the Year.