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Torres asks all CNMI judges to recuse from his lawsuit against House panel



By Mar-Vic Cagurangan


In a small community where everyone is connected and families are enmeshed in politics, impartiality may be a challenge, according to CNMI Gov. Ralph Torres, who is asking local judges to recuse themselves from his lawsuit against a House panel.


"In light of the highly partisan atmosphere surrounding the governor's ongoing dispute with the Committee, the governor believes that no single CNMI judge, current or former, can either be truly insulated from it or, no less important, be perceived by the public, reasonably or not, as insulated from it," the governor's legal team stated in a letter to Patrick V. Diaz, clerk of the Superior Court.


Superior Court Judge Tim Bellas has been assigned to handle Torres' lawsuit challenging the House committee on judiciary and government operations' authority to summon him to an investigation hearing.


Torres did not show up at the Dec. 14 hearing, saying the committee's action breached the separation of powers and encroached on the executive turf. The House committee, in turn, voted to hold him in contempt.


"Nevertheless, the governor believes that neither judge Bellas nor any other current or former CNMI judge should serve as judge pro tempore in this matter," stated the letter signed by the governor's attorneys, Gilbert J. Birnbrich, Joseph E. Horey and RichardC. Miller.


"The CNMI is a small community; there is scarcely a family that does not have ties to the government and a history of close political allegiances. So extensive are these ties that all five sitting Superior Court judges have had to disqualify themselves for one reason or another," they said.


Torres is facing impeachment proceedings over allegations of corruption, waste of public funds and neglect of duty. The embattled governor is seeking reelection.


The House has been tasked to take full action on the impeachment resolution as aspiring candidates flexed muscles for this year's elections.


"In the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding this case, it is essential that there be no public perception whatsoever that the judge may be partial politically to one side or the other," the governor's lawyers said.


"The losing side may well want to cry foul, yet it is in the best interest of the whole community, as well as the health of political debate in the commonwealth, that no hook be provided for either side to hang its hat on. This can only be attained by having a judge from outside the commonwealth preside in the Superior Court."


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Ahead of the impeachment proceedings, the governor and the legislators continued to trade barbs.


Rep. Celina Babauta, committee chair, accused Torres of attempting to manipulate the judicial branch "by requesting a closed-door meeting between himself and the chief justice."


"Mind you, the governor has done all of this with the assistance of his in-house legal counsel and his high-priced legal team that continues to cost CNMI taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars while legal fees incurred by our in-house counsel from the Legislative Bureau have not cost a single dime," Babauta said in a Jan 5 press statement.


Gilbert Birnbrich, the governor's legal counsel, denied Babauta's allegation.

“The governor did not seek a personal meeting with the chief of justice. His counsel requested a conference to seek clarification of the chief justice's order to notify the clerk of court of any ‘good cause or reason’ why Judge Bellas should not sit on the case. The governor was not going to be present at any meeting allowed by the Chief Justice," Birncrich said in a statement.


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