Monday, November 02, 2009

CNMI should question federal limits

CNMI should question federal limits

Monday, November 02, 2009

Special to the Saipan Tribune

Federalization is one of the key issues in the upcoming gubernatorial election. The issue is also before the federal court in Washington, thanks to Gov. Benigno Fitial's lawsuit. That lawsuit asks the court to determine whether Congress over-reached in enacting laws that will shift the balance of authority in key areas from our local government to the U.S. federal government.

The federal government first tried to take over in the late 1990s, in an effort to stop what was perceived to be human rights abuses by garment factories. The original purpose of the federal takeover had nothing to do with homeland security. But the original effort failed.

Then, the federal takeover bill resurfaced. It was passed by Congress not because it was still needed. However, by the time the federal takeover was passed, all but about two garment factories were gone. The last two are now gone.

Enter our Governor. His lawsuit has provided us with an opportunity to explain this important recent history, and to be heard in the proper forum for settling disputes between the CNMI and federal government. Governor Fitial has taken a stance on the behalf of those of us who believe the U.S. Congress exceeded their scope of legislative authority.

It is important to recognize that throughout U.S. history there has been a political tug-of-war going on between those who support states' rights and believe that federal power should be narrow, and those who favor a strong federal government with broad powers. The U.S. Founding Fathers themselves argued strongly over this issue in drafting the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was the leader of the states' rights group. He understood that local government requires real authority to provide for the needs of the local community.

Certainly no one would say that Thomas Jefferson was less of an American because he stood up for the rights of local government. The same goes for Governor Fitial and all those who appreciate and support his bold act of going before the courts.

Federalization is not an “inevitable consequence” of our relationship with the U.S. The Covenant was designed to ensure that the CNMI would retain important local autonomy even in midst of a powerful federal government. 'What limits does the Covenant places on federal power?'-that is a question worth asking each and every time a federal law impacting our islands is passed by Congress, even if we have to ask those questions in federal court.

While it is true that the United States can take control of our immigration, the United States has no right to interfere with our labor laws. The Covenant guarantees to us “self government” and that includes setting all terms and conditions for who is employed here. The federal takeover goes beyond immigration and gets into how we control employment. (Remember, the original purpose of the federal takeover was to stop labor abuses by garment factories). The fact that the federal takeover goes beyond immigration control violates the Covenant. Therefore, the federal takeover is both unjustified and unlawful.

Our priority should be to give Governor Fitial a chance to litigate the issues. He is doing that now in the proper forum for all of us.

Juan Lizama is a former associate judge at the CNMI Superior Court.

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