Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert C. Naraja placed yesterday under advisement Finance Secretary Larrisa Larson’s motion to disqualify Attorney General Edward Manibusan and his office from continuing as counsel or a party to Manibusan’s lawsuit against her that challenges the salary increases the Legislature had approved for some elected officials.
Naraja also placed under advisement Larson’s motion to dismiss Manibusan’s bid for injunctions that would stop Larson from implementing the law that provided the salary hike, Public Law 19-83.
Attorney Kimberlyn K. King-Hinds argued for Larson’s motion to disqualify, while former AG Matthew T. Gregory argued for Larson’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
OAG Civil Division chief Christopher M. Timmons argued Manibusan’s opposition to the motions. Both Larson and Manibusan were present in court.
In an interview after the hearing, Manibusan said he is not being personal in bringing the lawsuit against Larson.
“This is an issue that has to be decided by the court,” Manibusan said.
As to Timmons’ presentation about the OAG’s implementation of standard operating procedures, policy or guidelines with respect to conflict issue, Manibusan said one of the lawyer’s duties and obligations is to do due diligence and present the client the best he can.
“Part of that is doing research and making sure you have your fundamental arguments in place,” he said, adding that the OAG’s policy is a public document.
He said he looked it up and found out that there are procedures in place for screening any conflicts within the office.
“Lawyers actually have to know the rules of professional responsibility. And so individually, lawyers know what the rules are,” Manibusan said.
He said lawyers know what the model rules are with respect to how they act and do their work.
“That’s fundamental. What we did in this case was basically put a policy in place to ensure that the fundamental principles that govern lawyers are in place,” the AG said.
With respect to Larson’s suggestion to instead raise the salary increases issue to the CNMI Supreme Court, Manibusan agreed that it may be one way of handling this case.
Manibusan denied when asked if he filed the lawsuit as he is planning to run for governor.
“No. Not at all,” he said with a smile.
Manibusan declined to comment on Larson’s counsel’s question why he did not advise the Finance secretary first about his opinion about P.L. 19-83 before filing the lawsuit.
On the alternative of bringing the certified question instead, Manibusan said he will let Timmons handle the matter. The AG said they have to think about that.
When asked whether the OAG is disqualified from participating in this matter, Timmons believes there is no direct conflict. He said the attorneys involved in bringing this lawsuit do not represent Finance.
“We should not have any other conflicts imputed to us because we are a government legal office. We’re treated differently under the rules so long as we have appropriate screening in place to protect confidentiality and other clients’ interest,” he pointed out.
Timmons said the OAG in fact has those procedures in place and that they are following them, and that it’s appropriate for them to proceed with this matter.
With respect to whether Manibusan has the power to bring a lawsuit to declare a statute unconstitutional, Timmons said the trend reflects that he does have that power, so long as he is not been limited by the statute.
“The common law would afford the AG the power to bring actions in the public interest,” he said.
Timmons said Manibusan certainly thinks that preventing illegal pay hike is a matter of public interest and that it is within that common law power.
In Larson’s motion to disqualify, King-Hinds argued, among other things, that as chief legal counsel of the CNMI government, Manibusan is constitutionally mandated to advise and represent Larson, in her official capacity, on many matters pertaining to Finance.
King-Hinds said these actions by Manibusan against his client, Larson, raises serious concerns of conflict of the NMI Model Rules of Professional Responsibility.
In Larson’s motion to dismiss, Gregory asserted, among other things, that the question of whether Manibusan may sue the CNMI has not been decided by a CNMI court, making this a question of first impression in the CNMI.
Gregory said there is no actual case or controversy between Manibusan and Larson.
Gregory said a taxpayer action would be a better way to resolve the issue of legislative salary increases or a certified question.
King-Hinds said assistant attorney general Michael Witry, counsel for Manibusan, disclosed in the pleadings that the CNMI Treasury is currently in possession of about $28 million in unappropriated funds and claimed that that is more than enough money to fund the pay increases.
King-Hinds said such information was not obtained through the Open Government Act but because the OAG is representing Finance.
King-Hinds said Manibusan does not need to sue Larson and instead should bring a certified question to the high court.
“The issue here is the conflict,” she pointed out.
King-Hinds said there is no “conflict wall” implemented by the OAG.
King-Hinds said the point is the OAG did not advise Larson about their opinion as to the unconstitutionality of P.L. 19-83.
The lawyer said Manibusan has a duty to his client, Larson.
“He [Manibusan] didn’t follow the law. He should be disqualified,” she added.
Gregory said bringing this lawsuit is just problematic.
Gregory said there was no attempt from the OAG to advise Larson about P.L. 19-83.
Gregory said the better practice should be that the AG make an opinion about the issue and advise Larson that this law is not valid.
“There was no guidance,” he said.
Gregory said the better way to resolve the issue is the certified question to avoid a negative implication about Larson being sued.