CNMI Puts Proposed Article 12 Amendment To Voters

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Amendment would change native land ownership rules

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Sept. 17, 2013) – After years of legislative debate on land ownership, the decision now rests with voters whether to approve or not a proposed amendment to the Northern Mariana Islands Constitution’s Article 12 to allow any U.S. citizen with "at least some degree" of Chamorro or Carolinian blood to be considered a person of Northern Marianas descent (NMD) and can therefore own land in the CNMI.

This came about after the House of Representatives passed last night a Senate-amended Article 12 initiative that Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro (R-Saipan) authored.

Currently, only those with at least 25 percent NMD blood can own land in the CNMI under the NMI Constitution’s Article 12.

House Legislative Initiative 18-1, House Draft 1, Senate Draft 1 passed the House by a vote of 13-3 with four absences at 6:04pm.

It now heads to the Commonwealth Election Commission for placement on the ballot, in time for the 2014 elections.

"It costs $10,000 to $15,000 to place any initiative on the ballot," Commonwealth Election Commission executive director Robert Guerrero told Saipan Tribune last night.

The three "no" votes were from vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan), Rep. Edmund Villagomez (Cov-Saipan), and Rep. Ralph Yumul (Ind-Saipan).

Those who were absent or not in the gallery during voting were Reps. Tony Benavente (Ind-Saipan), Teresita Santos (R-Rota), Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan), and minority leader George Camacho (R-Saipan).

House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), prior to the voting, said the initiative needed at least 12 votes to pass.

When the votes came in, 13 of the 16 members present voted "yes," surpassing the required 12 votes to pass.

Discussions on the initiative during the House session were mainly on the Senate amendment excluding adopted children without any NMD blood from land ownership.

The Senate amendment was authored by Sen. Pete Reyes (Ind-Saipan), who was in the House gallery during initiative discussion and voting. Reyes said this is for "fairness" sake.

[PIR editor’s note: Earlier, Guam Chamber of Commerce Chairman Gerald S. A. Perez had said the Article hindered off-island investment in the CNMI because long-term interests in real property are restricted to those of indigenous Northern Marianas descent. Marianas Variety reports that CNMI Rep. Ramon A. Tebuteb, also the chairman of the Saipan and Northern Island Legislative Delegation, found Perez' comments disrespectful. "People like Mr. Perez are coming in to tell us that we don’t understand the American way of life because our Constitution discriminates? Guess what. The jurisdiction discrimination is what we have. That is allowable because that is our culture," he said.]

Dela Cruz, during discussions on the initiative, asked whether the CNMI is being "racist" to exclude non-NMD adopted children from land ownership.

The vice speaker said that, while there have been sham marriages and sham adoption, there are also genuine relationships, including having 100 percent NMD parents adopting a child with no NMD blood and want to pass on to their adopted child their land.

"I think by approving this initiative, we are being racist," Dela Cruz told his colleagues.

The speaker asked House legal counsel John Cool whether legislative passage and then voters’ ratification of the initiative will have a "retroactive effect."

Cool, in response, said the initiative, once ratified, will be "prospective."

This means only non-NMD children who are adopted "after" the initiative is ratified by voters will be ineligible to own land in the CNMI.

Any non-NMD child adopted prior to the voters’ ratification of the initiative will still get to own land.

David Sablan of the Citizens for Change of Article 12 earlier told Saipan Tribune it is high time to revisit this constitutional provision.

The ultimate decision rests with voters.

HLI 18-1, HD1, SD1 proposes to amend Article 12, Section 4, "in order to legally provide that a person who has at least some degree of Northern Marianas Chamorro or Northern Marianas Carolinian blood and who is a citizen or national of the United States shall be deemed a bona fide person of Northern Marianas descent for all purposes under Article 12, upon providing evidence to the Superior Court."

The court has to certify that a person is an NMD.

For purposes of determining an NMD under the initiative, a person shall be considered a full-blooded Northern Marianas Chamorro or Northern Marianas Carolinian if that person was born or domiciled in the Northern Mariana Islands by 1950 and was a citizen of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands before termination of the Trusteeship with the Commonwealth. Also considered NMDs are adopted children of NMDs, if adopted while under the age of 18 years.

The speaker reminded House members yesterday that the term NMD is a "political" definition rather than one that is based on "ethnicity" or "race."

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