Gov. Ralph DLG Torres has notified the CNMI Supreme Court that it will be appealing Superior Court judge pro tempore Timothy Bellas’ recent decision dismissing the governor’s case against the House of Representatives’ Judiciary and Governmental Operations Committee.
Torres’ counsel, Gilbert Birnbrich, filed a notice of appeal with the CNMI Supreme Court last week, just a day after the issuance of Bellas’ order, which supported the JGO’s motion that sought to have Torres’ case dismissed.
According to Saipan Tribune archives, one of the main reasons Bellas granted the JGO’s motion was because he determined that the committee can invoke legislative immunity and that the subpoena it issued to summon Torres—which Torres had defied—falls within the “legitimate legislative sphere” protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.
Bellas explained that it is plain from the face of the complaint and the matters taken under judicial notice that the JGO was acting “within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity,” and the court need not inquire into the committee’s motives.
“The subpoena covers seven subject areas that all relate to the governor’s expenditure of public funds and use of government personnel and resources. Not only are these topics ones ‘on which legislation could be had,’ there is in fact pending legislation relating to more than one of these expenditures,” Bellas said.
As for Torres’ argument that legislative immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause is not applicable to the JGO as a whole, Bellas said because the clause’s central purpose is to provide legislative independence, the JGO may invoke the clause as a whole.
“The court reads the language of Article II, Section 12 of the NMI Constitution broadly to effectuate its purpose of protecting legislative independence. The court finds no compelling reason to limit the protections of the Speech or Debate Clause to individual legislators only, and therefore the House standing committee may invoke legislative immunity as an affirmative defense from suit,” he said.
The court also found that Torres, in his capacity as governor of the CNMI, is not immune to subpoenas issued by the legislative branch as he previously argued.
In related news, Torres still faces criminal charges pursuant to alleged illegal first-class travel paid for by local funds.
A hearing on the criminal charges will be held today at 3pm.