Rule of Law

Justice Sotomayor Visits Saipan

Justice Sonia Sotomayor paid a visit last week to Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as part of a judicial conference.    Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court Justice to visit the islands.

“There’s still peace here. It is wonderful to see islands unlike the ones I am accustomed to, even my own island, Puerto Rico, that are very, very developed and don’t maintain completely their island identity, but that’s not true here,” she said.

The justice said she was able to watch and experience the CNMI’s native dancing and saw people still living the island life.

“It is really very, very attractive and inviting. I sound like a tourist ad for you, but I’ve been converted. And I think people should come and visit these islands because they are quite enchanting,” she said. . . .

When asked if there are challenges unique to insular areas that she sees in terms of upholding the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of the judicial system, Sotomayor paused for a moment, then stated that “clearly there is a challenge always when there are mixing of cultural experiences,” whether it is for the insular territories or the different parts of the United States. . . .

Sotomayor said she believes that whenever there is a mix of experiences, there’s going to be unique problems and that accepting the rules of another culture is not natural.

“We all like what we are familiar with,” she said.

Guam, you may recall, is where I am litigating a case in federal court regarding restrictions on the right to vote.  These restrictions only permit “native inhabitants” to participate in a status plebiscite election which some defenders of the law call a “Chamorro only” vote.  Guam’s status election has strategic implications because Guam hosts a forward deployed air force base and an essential navy base.  Those most interested in preventing white and Asian voters from participating in the status election are the same people most interested in casting off the American, or as they call it, “colonial,” presence on Guam. 

But if you find it shocking that not everyone can vote in every election in Guam, the situation is worse in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) where Saipan is located.  There, American whites and blacks can’t even own land, even though the American flag flies over the CNMI.

The Constitution of the CNMI explicitly prohibits land ownership to anyone except one racial group, native inhabitants. (N. MAR. I. CONST. art. XII, § 1 and § 4).  That means an American citizen who decides to live in the CNMI cannot own land if they are white, black or Asian.  This law is being challenged, but arises out of a complicated compact unique to the CNMI.

Sotomayor said she has been welcomed so warmly and greeted with such hospitality that “I couldn’t help but fall in love with each of the islands. And I already did promise I’m coming back, not in a year or two but down the line. I shall return and visit more of your islands.”

She said the CNMI is a part of the United States that she didn’t know enough about. “And now that I have had a taste, I am anxious and looking forward to learning more.”

Let’s just hope Justice Sotomayor on her return to Saipan, CNMI, doesn’t fall too much in love with the place.  Otherwise she will learn that even if she wanted a nice tropical beach house there, she won’t be allowed because she isn’t the approved race.