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Supreme Court rules Election Commission violated law

By Andrew O. De Guzman SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety, Jan. 5, 2010) – In the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Superior Court yesterday afternoon directed all parties in the Rota election case to submit their briefs today in compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Commonwealth Election Commission did not properly count the Rota ballots cast in the Nov. 7 general elections.

Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Naraja will hear oral arguments on Wednesday and will proceed with the recount of the ballots on Thursday.

On Dec. 31, 2009, in its slip opinion, the Supreme Court ordered the election commission to recount the Rota ballots under the supervision of the Superior Court.

"It is axiomatic that our public officials, particularly those charged with the administration of elections, must conduct their ministerial duties in accordance with the law as set forth by the Legislature," the eight-page slip opinion stated.

"In this case, the Commonwealth Election Commission has failed to conduct itself in accordance with the law," according to the unanimous decision penned by Chief Justice Miguel S. Demapan, Justices Pro Tem Timothy Bellas and Edward Manibusan.

The Supreme Court stated that "due to the time-sensitive nature of election cases and given the strict time limitations the Legislature has placed on the courts in resolving election disputes, [the high court] finds it prudent to issue [the] summary order while reserving the right to issue a supplemental opinion with more detailed analysis at a later date."

It added, "The commission’s failure to [preliminarily] count, tabulate, and publish the ballots case for the Rota election in Rota prior to their shipment to Saipan was a violation of a clearly established duty and warrants mandamus."

Yesterday, Naraja summoned, met, and heard the arguments of all the parties.

The election commission was represented by Assistant Attorney General Mike Ernest.

Assistant Attorney General Meaghan Hassel-Shearer represented the commission in the Supreme Court.

Attorneys Michael Dotts and Joseph Horey appeared for the losing Rota candidates: Rep. Victor B. Hocog, who ran for mayor, and Ross Hugh S. Manglona, who sought a House seat.

Robert T. Torres and Steven Pixley represented the winning candidates — Mayor-elect Melchor A. Mendiola and Rep.-elect Teresita A. Santos.

The commission’s executive director, Robert A. Guerrero, declined to comment.

Ernest, for his part, said, "it is the court’s decision and we are bound to follow it."

On Dec. 4, 2009, the Superior Court heard the complaint filed by Victor B. Hocog and Ross Hugh S. Manglona.

The trial court said the election commission had not properly counted the Rota ballots as mandated by statute.

But the court dismissed the complaint, saying that under the law, the person contesting the election must be able to prove that he would have won.

In the mayoral race, Mendiola received 547 votes; Hocog, 498; and Steve K. Mesngon, 341.

In the House election, Santos garnered 695 votes, while Manglona got 604.

After the trial court ruling, Hocog and Manglona appealed to the Supreme Court.

On Dec. 30, 2009, the high court held oral arguments.

In its ruling, the high court assessed the lower court’s dismissal as premature.

The Supreme Court said it agreed with the lower court that the election statute sets a very high standard for people attempting to overturn an election.

However, the Supreme Court said the election commission cannot freely choose not to follow the election procedures set by the Legislature.

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