On June 28, 2012 the CNMI Supreme Court issued a ruling in Commonwealth v. Lot 353 New-G, addressing the right of the heirs of Maria Mangabao to enforce their eminent domain judgment against the Commonwealth.
In 1993, the CNMI government took property from Maria Mangabao by eminent domain and used the property to improve a portion of Middle Road. The Commonwealth did not pay just compensation for the property. In 2008, over 10 years after the taking, the Commonwealth and the heirs entered into an agreement as to the value of the property. The trial court then entered a judgment against the Commonwealth for $4,196,524, the agreed value of the property. However, when the heirs tried to enforce this judgment with a writ of execution, the trial court refused to issue the writ. It relied upon 1 CMC § 7207, which states that any final judgment of a court shall be paid only pursuant to an item of appropriations for settlements and award. The trial court reasoned that, under the plain language of the statute, it had no authority to issue a writ of execution against the Commonwealth. The trial court subsequently awarded the Commonwealth title to the property. It also awarded the heirs’ pre-judgment interest on their judgment. It did not award the heirs any post-judgment interest.
The heirs appealed. They argued that section 7207 violated the Takings Clauses of the United States and NMI Constitution by preventing them from obtaining just compensation for their property. They also argued that the Commonwealth should not receive title to the property until it paid just compensation. Finally, they argued that the trial court erred by failing to award them post-judgment interest on the judgment.
On appeal, the Supreme Court held that section 7207 did not violate the Takings Clauses. It emphasized that the appropriation of funds is a power traditionally vested in the Legislature, and that the Judiciary would not infringe upon the independence of the Legislature by holding the statute unconstitutional and enforcing its judgment without an appropriation. The High Court also noted that most U.S. jurisdictions have adopted constitutional provisions similar to our statute. In applying these provisions, state courts routinely refuse to enforce judgments in the absence of a legislative appropriation.
The High Court also held that the Commonwealth could not take title to the property without payment of just compensation, and it ordered that title to the property remain with the heirs until the Commonwealth either paid just compensation or provided for future certain and adequate compensation. The court explained that the right to property is a natural and fundamental right. The just compensation requirements in the Takings Clauses protects persons from being called upon to unjustly sacrifice their private property for the good of the community. Although the government is not required to pay just compensation prior to a taking, it is well-established that the government cannot obtain title until it has either paid compensation or provided for future compensation.
Finally, the High Court held that the heirs were entitled to post-judgment interest on the judgment, and it remanded for an award of post-judgment interest.
The Supreme Court’s full opinion is Commonwealth v. Lot 353 New-G, 2012 MP 6, and can be found at http://www.cnmilaw.org/supreme_12.htm. (NMI Judiciary)