In 1789—or about 230 years ago—the U.S. Constitution was ratified and approved by the 13 original colonies. This landmark legal instrument established the first democracy in the world. As a representative democracy, the people of the United States freely choose their political leaders at a general election, held every two to four years.
Since that time, representative democracy began to replace the longstanding practice known as the “divine right of kings.” Rule by a monarchy or king began to give way to democratic institutions in the world. France was the next to follow.
The original Constitution was soon amended by the framers to include the Bill of Rights, a comprehensive set of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution that protect the rights of individuals from the awesome powers of the government.
In 1976, the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, exercising their inalienable right to political self-determination, freely voted to become a part of the American democracy. After a comprehensive public education program under the leadership of the Erwin D. Canham, the esteemed editor of the Christian Science Monitor, the Covenant was ratified by the people of the Northern Mariana Islands at a general plebiscite observed by the United Nations. The Northern Marianas Covenant set forth the basic and fundamental terms of our relationship with the United States. The right of the people to exercise local self-government without infringement by the federal government, the right to own land, the right to a jury trial, and the composition of the CNMI Senate are some of the fundamental provisions of the Covenant, which may be amended only with the consent and approval of both the people of the CNMI and the United States government.
Two years later, on Jan. 9, 1978, we began to govern ourselves under our own local constitution—our basic local law. We elected our first political leaders—the first governor and the first members of our bicameral Legislature, among others. Over 40 years have passed since we began governing ourselves. As we should know, we have experienced a number of ups and downs in the way we have governed ourselves since 1978. Our local leaders have, on many occasions, made decisions or took actions that were questionable or simply failed to follow applicable laws and regulations. On a number of occasions, they have made decisions benefitting family members, business associates, and cronies.
When we began self-government, some of us may have thought that these legal or conflict of interest issues were simply the result of our leaders’ inexperience in governing and, therefore, excusable. After all, this was the first time, after 400 years of colonization, that the people of the CNMI truly began governing themselves. Such excuse may appear justifiable during the first decade of CNMI self-government. But after 40 years of governing ourselves (?) and after our laws have been in place for four decades now (?), our leaders have absolutely no reason to feign ignorance of the law or with issues of conflict, whether local or federal. We can no longer use our inexperience at self-governance as an excuse for the failure of our leaders to govern competently, for the benefit of all the people and in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.
Our leaders, as we all know, are elected to serve all of the people of the CNMI, not just the members of the elected leader’s political party. Very sadly and embarrassingly, however, a fairly large number of our government leaders (both elected and appointed) believe that they are not answerable to the people, particularly to those whom they suspect did not vote for them, are members of the losing political party, or who openly criticize their performance in office. When our leaders do this, they are hurting the entire Commonwealth, because they are not fulfilling their constitutional obligation to serve all of the people of the Commonwealth.
Every now and then, however, a few of our political leaders would rise above the fray and try to do what is right, i.e. put the interest of all the people above partisan or personal interest. These leaders are not afraid to criticize the decisions made and the actions taken by the ruling majority party—decisions and actions which openly benefit themselves, or their friends, cronies, and business associates. These rare leaders willingly put their necks on the line. They are not afraid to criticize any unlawful or questionable actions or transactions taken by those in power. Their guiding principle is two-fold: all laws and regulations must be followed and any law and regulation enacted or promulgated by the government must benefit everyone in the Commonwealth. They act as “gadflies” against corruption in government. For their willingness to put their neck on the line, without fear of retribution, of being ridiculed or being made fun of, they deserve the thanks of the people of the Commonwealth.
About 200 years ago, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote his now famous book, Democracy in America. It should be required reading for everyone in the Commonwealth. In his book, de Tocqueville observed that in the newly-established American democracy, the people should always watch out for and should always be vigilant against the “tyranny of the majority.” This, of course, is the lurking danger in any democratic system of government, because our leaders are elected by the majority of the voters. When the majority fails to realize that all elected leaders are sworn to serve all of the people—both majority and minority, then the tyranny of the majority will rear its ugly head and our democratic system of government will suffer. We should never allow this to happen.
Jose S. Dela Cruz (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Jose S. Dela Cruz is a former chief justice of the NMI Supreme Court.