Gil Birnbrich, legal counsel for the governor, issued the following statement in response to the statement issued late Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2021, by Rep. Celina Babauta, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations:
Late Wednesday, the chairwoman of the House Judiciary and Governmental Operations issued a press release within which she stated that Gov. Ralph Torres “attempted to manipulate the Judicial Branch by requesting a closed-door meeting between himself and the chief justice.”
This is not true.”
The governor did not seek a personal meeting with the chief of justice. His counsel requested a conference to seek clarification of the chief justice’s order to notify the clerk of court of any “good cause or reason” why Judge Bellas should not sit on the case. The governor was not going to be present at any meeting allowed by the chief justice.
Counsel also sought the same clarification by letter. Specifically, counsel asked whether such “good cause or reason” was limited to the ordinary grounds for judicial disqualification, or whether it was intended to include a broader range of concerns.
Significantly, neither the governor nor his counsel impugned or maligned the qualifications of Judge Bellas. Counsel wrote: “Governor Torres does not believe any statutory grounds exist that disqualify Judge Bellas.”
Counsel then expressed the governor’s broader concerns as follows:
Nevertheless, the governor believes that neither Judge Bellas nor any other current or former CNMI judge should serve as judge pro tempore in this matter. The CNMI is a small community; there is scarcely a family that does not have ties to the government and a history of close political allegiances. So extensive are these ties that all five sitting Superior Court judges have had to disqualify themselves for one reason or another. In light of the highly partisan atmosphere surrounding the governor’s ongoing dispute with the committee, the governor believes that no single CNMI judge, current or former, can either be truly insulated from it or, no less important, be perceived by the public, reasonably or not, as insulated from it. …In the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding this case, it is essential that there be no public perception whatsoever that the judge may be partial politically to one side or the other. The losing side may well want to cry foul, yet it is in the best interest of the whole community, as well as the health of political debate in the Commonwealth, that no hook be provided for either side to hang its hat on. This can only be attained by having a judge from outside the Commonwealth preside in the Superior Court.
As this letter makes clear, the governor did not “question the integrity of the CNMI judiciary” as the chairwoman claimed. On the contrary, his counsel specifically stated: “The governor has great faith in the ability and integrity of CNMI judges,” but also noted that “sometimes the better part of judgment is knowing when to step away.”
Unfortunately, the chairwoman’s distortion and misrepresentation of the governor’s concerns demonstrate all too clearly that those concerns are valid, and that, if a partisan spin can be put on anything related to this dispute, it will be.