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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Lawyer: It's time to deal with Guam's political status in 'a realistic way'

Guam independence advocates join the Fanoghe march on Sept, 2, 2019. File photo by Pacific Island Times

Guam must now confront its self-determination process in a "realistic, constitutional way," a civil rights lawyer said, noting that the question as to who can participate in the political status vote has been fully resolved.

"The matter is over," said J. Christian Adams, who represented Army veteran and Yigo resident Arnold Dave Davis in a 2107 lawsuit that challenged Guam's law limiting voting eligibility for the political status plebiscite to "native inhabitants."

The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected Guam's plea for a review of the Ninth Circuit Court's decision that struck down what it described as a "racially discriminatory" law. In a ruling last year, the appeals court held that excluding non-native inhabitants from the self-determination vote was a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Every year, the U.S. Supreme Court receives more than 6,000 petitions for review from different U.S. jurisdictions, but only less than 10 percent of these cases get picked up.

"It took nine years, but Arnold Davis at last has final victory and justice,"Adams said in an e-mail. "It is a shame that so much energy was devoted to a divisive racially discriminatory voting qualification."

Adams said the Guam Legislature could have opened the vote to all residents years ago. "Those status questions could have been resolved by now, but instead money and time were wasted," he said.

The long-running litigation over this non-binding political status plebiscite has proved costly for the government of Guam. In April 2019, the District Court of Guam awarded Davis more than $947,000 in attorneys fees and related costs plus interests. The government of Guam had accrued an additional obligation when, in the subsequent appeal, the Ninth Circuit awarded Davis more than $225,000 in legal fees and other pertinent expenses.

In December last year, the governor said Kirkland and Ellis, an international law firm that filed the petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of GovGuam had agreed to do the work for free.

"Now is the time for everyone to come together and settle these issues in a realistic, constitutional way that respects the dignity of every citizen on Guam,” Adams said.

The yet-to-be-scheduled plebiscite would ask Guam voters to choose from three political status options: independence, statehood and free association.

In a press conference last week, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said Guam will "move on with the plebiscite," taking into consideration the appeals court's ruling. "We could do legislation, or amend the legislation that would address the Ninth Circuit's concerns about the (local plebiscite law)," the governor said.


The fight is not over, as far as local advocates of nationalism are concerned.

"The denial by the U.S. court system presents a unique and incredibly timely opportunity for our island to build relationships with the regional and international community as we navigate toward decolonization. The voice of our community is clear: now is the time to stand together for justice," the Fanoghe Coalition said in a statement.

The coalition wrote to Guam leaders on Monday urging them "to renew their commitment to self-determination with the urgency and respect that this issue demands."

"The Supreme Court’s denial is a frustrating representation of ongoing legal attacks on CHamoru self-determination and land rights," the coalition, representing 36 organizations, stated in a letter to Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero and members of the 35th Guam Legislature.

"While it is tempting to simply dismiss this as another moment of colonial injustice over the centuries, this is really a failure on the part of the United States to address the legitimate concerns of the CHamoru people and to fulfill their promises made over the course of the past 120 years," the coalition said.


The letter was also addressed to Delegate Michael San Nicolas, who said last year he stood in favor of a more inclusive process that would open he plebiscite to all registered Guam voters, regardless of race.

In a separate statement, the Independence Committee said the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear Guam's appeal should not "hinder this pursuit of sovereignty and justice for the CHamoru people."

"The current Covid-19 crisis has provided reminders about the need to address our island’s political status. As our island leaders are learning through this pandemic, our inferior political status limits our ability to care for our people on our terms," the committee said. "Our current political status affects everything from our inability to close our borders to delays in arrival of federal aid. At a time like this, we must renew our efforts to educate the community about the need to change our political status."

In the Legislature, Sen. Kelly Marsh Taitano expressed disappointment in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to take the Guam case.

"It is a sad truth that rectifying historical injustices can be lengthy, drawn-out battles. We need to look no farther than the end of slavery in our nation-- brutal treatment toward millions of fellow human beings who, legally and constitutionally, were treated as chattel or less for nearly a hundred years in the U.S." Marsh Taitano said in a statement.

"It took a civil war, bloodshed, and people willing to stand up for others and what was right, risking their own lives. It took nearly another hundred years to win the battle to overcome a new set of injustices that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow laws crafted as a means to continue to oppress fellow human beings, including CHamorus present in the U.S. at the time. "Although I am not CHamoru, I love this island and see part of my connection to it as supporting the rights of those indigenous to this land, and helping reverse the historical injustices that have been inflicted upon them. This is something I have felt for many years, and is the basis of my commitment to you as one of your elected leaders," she added.

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