New federal courthouse holds ‘soft opening’

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TO mark the “soft opening” of the new federal courthouse in Gualo Rai on Monday, the U.S. and the CNMI flags were raised outside the building by the Manta Ray Battalion Color Guard.

In her remarks, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona said she had planned to host a public grand opening celebration two weeks ago with dignitaries from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the U.S. General Services Administration, the CNMI government and members of the community.

“But the Covid-19 pandemic, unfortunately, forced us to postpone the grand opening and limit this soft opening to in-person attendance to building management and tenants only,” she said.

Ramona V. Manglona

“We believe it is not the appropriate time for a grand celebration when this pandemic remains a constant threat here in the CNMI, and has wreaked havoc to the nation and the world. We pray for a quick resolution of the challenging circumstances facing us today. But the court must continue to operate and perform its mission by according litigants their day in court and maintaining the health and safety of all who enter the courthouse,” she added.

With all the social distancing requirements nowadays, the move to this 36,000-square-foot courthouse is timely, the judge said.

“We are pleased with the design features of this courthouse, which include a spacious 2,400-square-foot column-free courtroom with a unique oculus skylight; a large multi-purpose space that functions as a second courtroom, two judges’ chambers, a jury assembly room, a law library, and multiple office spaces facing the lagoon expanse. At the entrance of the clerk’s office, one can take in the view of the verdant mountainside to the east, and the ever-present ships toward the horizon on the west, all from one spot.”

She said it was her predecessor, Senior Judge Alex R. Munson, who began the quest for a new courthouse shortly after the 1995 bombing of the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City.

He made some progress along the way, she added, but the circumstance that provided the necessary momentum occurred after he retired and when there was no sitting chief judge for the Northern Mariana Islands.

She said in Oct. 2010, a van rammed through the ground floor of the Horiguchi Building where the courthouse previously was housed, destroying several rows of public gallery seats.

Guam Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood, as the designated judge for the NMI district,  “immediately took action to continue the quest and push for a new, secure courthouse,” Judge Manglona said.

“From day one when I became chief judge nine years ago,” she added, “I made it my mission to find us a place that met the national standards of a federal courthouse.”

Judge Manglona said since then, “I worked with many judges to get [the U.S.  General  Services  Administration or] GSA to prioritize the NMI among the many other courts’ requests for new facilities throughout the country.”

At the Ninth Circuit, then-Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Circuit Executive Cathy Catterson assigned Assistant Circuit Executive Cliff Harlan to work closely with the NMI on this project, Judge Manglona said.

“Current Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and Circuit Executive Libby Smith have provided continuing support and will hopefully join us at the grand opening,” she added.

At the national level, she said the Judicial Conference of the United States “supported our request with funding approval, and its Space and Facilities Committee along with the

wonderful staff at the Administrative Office helped me reach out to the GSA leadership to push this project to the forefront.”

Judge Manglona said “it was at this meeting that I was introduced to GSA’s Region 9 Commissioner Dan R. Brown, head of the Pacific Rim Public Buildings Service. Commissioner Brown and his team worked closely with us every step of the way, and now join us in celebrating this accomplishment. We extend much gratitude for GSA’s successful delivery of our new home.”

She said, “There were many people involved in the success that we have today, and I thank each and every one of you. We, the court and the federal agencies, are not the only ones that moved mountains to get this project done.”

Marianas Management Corp. or MMC, she added, “literally took parts of the Kannat Tabla hillside to fill this site, solidifying the building foundation and protecting it from potential tsunamis.”

After the Dec. 2017 groundbreaking ceremony, the judge said MMC and its contractor, Future World, forged ahead with the project. “Along the way, they encountered increased tariffs, survived Super Typhoon Yutu’s devastation, and then persevered through the Covid-19 pandemic and air travel shutdown.”

 Despite these incredible obstacles, the judge added, “we now stand in awe in front of this wonderfully pleasing structure, complete with manicured tropical landscaping. We hope to hold a public grand opening ceremony or an open house in 2021 once these pandemic challenges are resolved.”

GSA awarded a 20-year lease to MMC for the construction of the new federal courthouse.


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