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By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 2) – Superior Court Associate Judge Ramona Villagomez Manglona has rejected a request to establish procedures to allow aliens legally living on Saipan to be included in the jury pool.

Manglona ruled that the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) government's interest in ensuring that members of its juries are full citizens of the United States is of greater importance.

Manglona underscored the need to have full U.S. citizens in the jury pool in her decision that denied defendant Edgardo Macabalo's motion to include non-citizens in the jury array.

The judge, however, noted that Macabalo raises legitimate concerns that the number of citizens compared to the number of noncitizens who presently reside in the local community negatively impacts his right to a jury array that represents a fair cross-section of the community when noncitizens are statutorily excluded from jury service.

Manglona said defendant may rely upon other available means, such as voir dire and challenges for cause, to obtain an impartial jury in the case.

Through voir dire an attorney can challenge a prospective juror "for cause" if that person says or otherwise expresses bias against the attorney's case.

The jury recently found Macabalo guilty of 13 counts of theft for stealing from MarPac Inc. about $120,000 in beer delivery collections. Manglona, however, set aside the jury's verdict and declared Macabalo not guilty, finding the evidence in the case not enough to sustain the guilty verdict.

Macabalo is an ethnic Filipino and a citizen of the Philippines. He was employed by Marpac for over 10 years as a nonresident worker and now lives on Saipan as the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen.

Before the trial, he filed a motion to include noncitizens in the jury array, asking the court to establish procedures to allow aliens legally living on Saipan to be included in the jury pool.

Macabalo, through assistant public defender Richard Miller, argues that his right to a fair trial, particularly his right to a trial by an impartial jury drawn from a fair cross-section of the community, requires the inclusion of non-citizens in the jury array when all present circumstances are considered.

In its opposition, the government argues that no legal authority supports the inclusion of non-citizens in the jury array and that the issue of juror qualification presents a political question that should not be determined by the Superior Court.

Manglona orally denied the motion.

In her written ruling issued last week, Manglona said that, although the proportionate numbers and distinctive circumstances of noncitizens residing in the local community lend weight to Macabalo's argument to include noncitizens in the jury array, the court is not persuaded that any potential prejudice to his Sixth Amendment right to trial by an impartial jury is sufficient to outweigh the government's substantial interest in maintaining a jury comprising U.S. citizens.

Manglona said that under the previously-cited authority, both the federal and state governments have established that the exclusion of aliens from jury service is justified to serve the important government interest of ensuring that the individuals who are selected to perform the vital function of jurors sufficiently understand and are sufficiently committed to government's laws and institutions to be entrusted with that responsibility.

Manglona, however, rejected the government's argument that the issue that presents a nonjusticiable political question is untenable.

"The fact that the right to a jury trial in the Commonwealth has been granted by a decision of the Legislature provides no basis for assuming that the right, once conferred, carries no less than the full guarantees of fairness provided by the NMI Constitution," Manglona said.

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