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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center

With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

CNMI Senate Promises ‘Speedy’ Impeachment Trial
Trial could be over in two weeks, says Senate VP

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Feb. 14, 2013) – The Senate special committee on impeachment rules yesterday vowed a speedy trial for Northern Marianas Governor Benigno R. Fitial who has been impeached for felony, corruption and neglect of duty.

Senate Vice President Ralph DLG Torres, chairman and spokesman for the special panel, said the senators, who will act as judges, will be "fair and impartial."

House Resolution 18-2, calling for the impeachment of Fitial, was transmitted to the Senate at 11 a.m. yesterday.

By a vote of 16 to 4, 16 of the 18 articles of impeachment were adopted by the House on Feb. 11 and 12.

The vote on Article 10, accusing the governor of neglect of duty for not sanctioning then-Attorney General Edward T. Buckingham who violated the Hatch Act, was 16 to 3 with one abstention. House Minority Leader George N. Camacho, R-Saipan, abstained because his brother, now Judge Joseph N. Camacho, is mentioned in the allegation.

Rep. Roman C. Benavente, IR-Saipan, abstained from voting on Article 14 which accuses Fitial of neglect of duty for failing to appoint a chief justice. So 15 pro-impeachment House members voted yes to this allegation while the four pro-Fitial lawmakers voted no.

In an interview, Torres told reporters that Senate President Jude U. Hofschneider is expected to write a letter informing the governor of the Senate’s receipt of the impeachment resolution, and that the Senate will give him the chance to respond.

Torres said they will decide today on the deadline for the governor’s response.

Torres said they will inform Fitial of the Senate’s preference for a speedy and fair trial. It can be over in two weeks, he added, but it is not going to go on for more than a month.

"The trial most likely will be within two to three weeks from [the day] the governor receives the letter," Torres said.

[PIR editor's note: House Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan has reiterated his call to Fitial to step down immediately for the commonwealth's sake "to save everyone the trouble" of having to move the impeachment process to the Senate.]

During the trial, he said, both sides will be given ample time to present their arguments. Both the prosecutors (the House) and the defense panel will be given enough time for their opening statements. The Senate won’t minimize the time for the presentation of testimony and evidence, or its rebuttal by the defense.

"We have to do what we believe is right and allow a reasonable time for the governor to respond to the 18 allegations. But it will be a speedy trial — enough time to allow senators, as judges, to digest the information prior to the trial," he said.

But Torres said the Senate would not tolerate delaying tactics. He said they will recognize it immediately if the defense tries to delay the trial.

He said they would make sure there was ample time for all 18 allegations to be addressed. But if there were delaying tactics, they would not hesitate to step in and stop them in order to move the proceedings forward.

Torres said when the impeachment trial begins, other matters before the Senate will be rescheduled and consider when the trial is done.

"We don’t want to prolong the trial. But we will give a reasonable amount of time for both sides to present their arguments," he added.

The impeachment trial rules, Torres said, are almost done and will be presented in the Senate session on Friday.

Torres said they will seek the advice of the Supreme Court or retired members of the judiciary on the conduct of the impeachment trial.

His panel will ask the Supreme Court to give them three names to choose from but they will also open the selection process up to retired justices or judges.

The Senate, Torres said, will allow the prosecutors to present each of the impeachment resolutions while the defendant will be given the opportunity to rebut the allegations.

"Then the senators will vote on all 18 articles," he said.

Prior to and during the impeachment trial, Torres said, the governor will be prohibited from making contact with any of the senators.

He noted that in criminal proceedings, "judges can’t have lunch with the defendant."

"We will have the same respect for the process here. And the reason we do that is to ensure fairness to both sides," he said.

If there are other issues that both the governor and the Senate need to address together, Torres said he will suggest holding a meeting open to the public.

"It is a never a win-win situation when you are put in this place, but we have to do the right thing and I believe the Senate will do the right thing. And we are trying to cover as many angles as we can to address this issue," he said.

[PIR editor's note: Fitial continues to maintain he is immune from the CNMI taxpayer's lawsuit against the controversial power agreement, citing the ruling in a previous suit against former governor Froilan Tenorio.]

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