Regarding Article 12

IN his 1966 book, “A Reporter in Micronesia,” E.J. Kahn Jr. wrote that the U.S. wanted to “protect” the people of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands against the possibility of losing their most permanent and precious asset — their land. (Administered by the U.S., the TT comprised the NMI, the Marshalls, Palau and what is now known as the FSM — Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Yap). Kahn said the U.S. decreed from the start that non-Micronesian could not own property within the TT.  At the same time, he said, the U.S. was also aware that it might have to acquire land for administrative and military purposes.

Regarding America’s presence in the TT, Kahn mentioned a key fact that many of us may no longer remember today: “we [the U.S.] wanted to exercise some kind of control over so broad an expanse of the Pacific; otherwise our national security might again be imperiled.”

Howard Willens and Deanne Siemer, in their authoritative history of the Covenant, “An Honorable Accord,” noted that the NMI negotiating team presented four general topics to its U.S. counterpart on day one of the Covenant negotiations: political status, economics, transition and land. The NMI “raised the question whether under a relationship with the United States, the Northern Marianas would have the authority to limit the ability of outsiders to purchase local land…. Over the past decade, UN representatives and Micronesian leaders from other [TT] districts had repeatedly claimed that any affiliation with the United States would prevent the Northern Marianas from imposing restrictions on the purchase of its land by other American citizens. [The NMI team] strongly supported such restraints on land transactions aimed at protecting local ownership of land against purchases by outsiders….” The NMI team wanted to know “if that could be accomplished under the U.S. Constitution.”

One of the members of the U.S. team stated that the U.S. Congress “does insist that [the land alienation issue] be addressed in the [Covenant] and does insist that the [Northern] Marianas adopt land alienation laws to protect persons of Marianas ancestry from losing their lands.”

And so according to Section 805 of the Covenant to Establish the CNMI in Political Union with the United States (which was approved by the NMI people, passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the U.S. president):

The “Government of the Northern Mariana Islands, in view of the importance of the ownership of land for the culture and traditions of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, and in order to protect them against exploitation and to promote their economic advancement and self-sufficiency:

“(a) will, until twenty-five years after the termination of the Trusteeship Agreement, and may thereafter, regulate the alienation of permanent and long-term interests in real property so as to restrict the acquisition of such interests to persons of Northern Mariana Islands descent; and

“(b) may regulate the extent to which a person may own or hold land which is now public land.”

The NMI’s trusteeship status ended in 1986. Beginning in 2011, NMI voters can consider amending or lifting the land-alienation restrictions imposed by Article 12 of their Constitution.

That they can, to be sure, doesn’t mean that they should. Hence the heated debates whenever this issue is discussed.

In 1990, Willens and Siemer wrote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Wabol v Villacrusis that Article 12 did not violate the U.S. Constitution. “On the merits,” the Ninth Circuit stated, “we hold that the right to acquire permanent or long-term interests in NMI real estate is not one protected by the United States Constitution.” Willens and Siemer also noted that an effort to have this decision reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful.

And so here we all are.

Make it 99%

BY now, many of us have already realized that what a politician — any politician — say in public is for public consumption. No one among them is against the things we consider good; and no one is for the things we consider bad. It is unlikely to hear them say that they are for corruption and are against transparency. No one running for office is likely to say that they want less funding for education, public health or public safety. And they all want us to pay less for the things we need, and to get more for the work we do.

No one, moreover, wants to talk about arithmetic. In politics, a person running for office must, first of all, know how to talk the talk, and must show us that s/he has a “good heart” — a personal quality that, it seems, is inversely proportional to basic math skills.

And so elected officials and other politicians will tell the public that they are truly in favor of this really good thing, and are totally against this patently bad thing, to which a concerned citizen should reply by asking the following questions:

So what are you — as an elected official and/or politician aspiring for political office — going to do about it? Do you have an actual proposal? Why do you think it’s good? Compared to what? Do you have hard data? What is the cost? Who will pay for it? How much? For how long?

In a constitutional, representative democracy, key public policy proposals must go through the democratic, deliberative process, and must be approved by voters or their representatives; so we should also ask the elected official/candidate for office:

Can your proposal secure the approval of both houses of the CNMI Legislature, the governor and/or voters?

And once your proposal is approved and implemented, what are the likely consequences?  We can, of course, speculate about possible unforeseen and unanticipated consequences, but such discussion will be largely academic. Still, we must acknowledge that there could be unforeseen and unanticipated consequences of public policies, however “thoughtful,” “well intentioned” or “well crafted.”

Hence, as a very wise man once said, “98 percent of good governance consists of stopping bad — meaning most — ideas.”


Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on

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