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OPINION | ‘Shutdown cannot be an option’

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On April 23, 2020, the Office of the Governor held the Commonwealth Fiscal Response Summit. The summit’s purpose is to “support a broad-based participatory leadership event” allowing stakeholders in the Commonwealth to foster an understanding of the current fiscal crisis and work collaboratively on policy options in response to the fiscal crisis. In addition to members of Graduate School USA, the CNMI executive and legislative branches, and the private sector, the judiciary participated in this summit.

Chief Justice Alexandro C. Castro provided the following welcoming remarks:

BUENAS yan Tirowammi. Today, our Commonwealth — and the world — face an unprecedented economic crisis. For such a challenge, there presents us with a choice to either unite or divide.

Thank you, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, for inviting the third branch of our government to this important summit.

While the judiciary cannot make concession in matters of fiscal policy due to our role as an arbiter of law, we are grateful to participate and be consulted with, because the decisions made today will impact the court’s future.

This summit has set in motion an effort for us to unite and to address the current crisis for the good of our Commonwealth because we — the government body — exist by the consent of our people and hold the highest duty to protect our people’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And we must fulfill this duty by applying our norms and values of "respetu yan inaguiaya," by preserving the principle of checks and balances, and by adhering to the doctrine of separation of powers.

For the Commonwealth to function smoothly as intended by the U.S. and CNMI Constitutions, the judiciary must be treated at all times as co-equal with and independent of the executive and legislative branches, and not as a department, agency, or instrumentality of the CNMI government.

The recent budget cut of 48% pierces the heart of the judiciary’s independence because it effectively shuts down the third branch of our government.

Our fiscal projection indicates that it would be an impossibility for the court to perform its constitutional and statutory duties: no one will be left to supervise the probationers; the Drug Court will cease to exist; the Family Court Division services will come to a complete halt; the public will no longer have access to official land registration and other real estate, commercial, and personal property documents as well as death certificates, birth certificates, and marriage certificates; and the doors of Kotten Tinian and Centron Hustisia in Rota will be closed to our people.

Shutdown cannot be an option because access to justice is crucial to our people today more than ever. With restrictions in movement due to Covid-19, domestic violence and sexual abuse are likely to surge.

Lost income and unemployment may lead to rise in property crimes. Without adequate treatment and supervision, drug court participants are already relapsing. The first ripple effect is the participant. The second ripple is the family and the children. The third, is our community and our islands. The people need the court system to seek justice, to preserve human dignity, and to uphold order, peace, and good governance.

In closing, I would like to propose few ideas which may help our government to operate optimally while living within our means.

I recommend that we continue the practice as we did in some budget years to give the legislative and judicial branches a lump sum budget with 100% reprogramming authority to provide greater flexibility in addressing our internal needs.

I also recommend we change the present system of the OMB allocating our budget on a monthly basis, for this amounts to micro-managing the funds already appropriated.

Thank you, Si Yu’us Ma’ase, Gilisow.

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