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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (January 20, 2000 – Saipan Tribune)---The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed a ruling handed down by the federal district court last year upholding the present composition of the CNMI Senate, which provides three seats each for the islands of Rota, Saipan and Tinian.

Government officials hailed the judgment that came Tuesday (Wednesday local time), throwing out the nearly three-year legal battle waged by Rep. Stanley T. Torres and lawyer Jeanne Rayphand.

In the one-sheet order, the Supreme Court said the lower court's ruling is affirmed and that the plaintiff has at least 25 days to petition for a rehearing.

There is no immediate reaction from Mr. Torres and Ms. Rayphand or their counsel Ted Mitchell. But opposition against the lawsuit filed in 1997 welcomed the court's decision.

"We're very pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Covenant. This is great news for the CNMI people," said acting Attorney General Maya B. Kara in a statement.

The Senate also underscored its significance to the agreement forged between the Commonwealth and the United States as it noted that the ruling brings the Covenant into a "firmer footing than ever before" since its signing in 1978.

"This is a landmark victory for all of the people of the CNMI, not just Rota and Tinian," it said in a statement sent by Senate legal counsel Steve Woodruff.

"It preserves the framework of governance the Founders chose, essentially by consensus, upon the formation of the Commonwealth. Most important of all, it is a clear and unambiguous declaration by the Supreme Court of the United States -- the highest court of the land -- that the rights and privileges granted the CNMI by the Covenant are to be respected," it added.

Juan N. Babauta, CNMI's resident representative to Washington, recognized efforts by Senate President Paul A. Manglona, the mayors of Tinian and Rota as well as the Attorney General's Office for the victory.

"Their leadership was needed on this issue and it is heartening to see that they have prevailed," he said in a statement.

One person, one vote

The high court's judgment stemmed from the appeal filed by the plaintiffs against the ruling from the federal court junking their suit in May last year. They invoked "one person, one vote."

In the decision by U.S. District Judges Alex R. Munson and John S. Unpingco, and Senior Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace, it upheld the present Senate setup of three senators from each island as provided under the Covenant.

They maintained that the "one person, one vote" provided in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is not a fundamental right for citizens in the CNMI.

The suit had asserted that the apportionment of the Senate seats is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause under such amendment because of the great disparity in the population of the three senatorial districts.

Both Mr. Torres and Ms. Rayphand immediately appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court and asked that eight senate seats be given to Saipan, and one each to Rota and Tinian, based on each island's population size.

Defendants included the chair and members of the Board of Elections, with the intervention of the CNMI and U.S. governments, the mayors of Rota and Tinian and the Legislature.

According to court documents submitted by the party, the initial judgment should be affirmed to quash further attempts to change the three-member representation in the Senate by each district of Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

They also extensively reaffirmed the earlier ruling's findings that many independent nations, including the United States, which have bicameral legislatures, have one house that is often malapportioned.

The U.S. government, on the other hand, argued in a separate motion that the CNMI Senate composition as provided under the Covenant was a political compromise to ensure "equal representation" for the two smaller islands.

Among those who defended the CNMI's case were Assistant Attorney General Robert Goldberg, counsels Tim Bruce, Loren Sutton and Steve Woodruff. Lawyer David Collins of the San Francisco law firm Gordon & Rees was hired to assist them.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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