Postal ballot goes to Supreme Court

The Supreme Court lineup for the mid-August two-day session in Majuro, from left: Judges Michael Seabright and Richard Seeborg, Chief Justice Daniel Cadra, and Acting CJ James Plasman. Photo: Giff Johnson.

A hearing scheduled for this week in the High Court for two lawsuits seeking to restore voting by postal ballots for off-island Marshallese was cancelled as the judge sent the dispute to the RMI Supreme Court. The two lawsuits had been scheduled for their first hearing in the High Court August 27.

Although the plaintiffs in the two lawsuits disagreed on the Attorney General’s motion to move the dispute out of the High Court directly to the Supreme Court for review of the constitutional issues involved, Judge Witten Philippo issued a “removal order” August 21 sending the matter directly to the Supreme Court.

Assistant Attorney General Falai Taafaki had called for removing the dispute to the Supreme Court.

In his order, Judge Philippo said the lawsuits claim that the Nitijela law adopted in 2016 halting absentee voting by postal ballots “is unconstitutional because it deprives them of their constitutional right to participate in the electoral process as voters, as guaranteed them under Article IV, Section 3 and Article II, Section 14(2) and (3) of the Constitution.”

Philippo said the question for the Supreme Court to address: “Is there a constitutional right for a qualified Marshallese voter residing outside the Marshall Islands to vote in the Marshall Islands national or local elections by postal ballots or otherwise?”

The judge pointed out in his Removal Order that the Constitution gives the High Court authority “to remove to the Supreme Court questions, such as the above, arising as to the interpretation of the effect of the Constitution in any proceedings of the High Court.”

In the meantime, the RMI Supreme Court held two days of hearings in mid-August. It is reviewing six appeals, having heard oral argument in five of the disputes during two days of hearings in Majuro.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Cadra, of Alaska, and Judges Michael Seabright, Chief US District Judge for Hawaii, and Richard Seeborg, a US District Judge for Northern California, heard five of the six cases.

Acting Chief Justice James Plasman stepped in for Cadra, joining Seabright and Seeborg, to hear an appeal of a Bikej, Kwajalein dispute involving Jerakoj Bejang, Aun James, Hering Drebon and George Inok against Bernie Hitto and Handy Emil over a judgment debt issue.

Cadra, Seabright and Seeborg heard oral argument from lawyers in the following cases:

• Mudge Samuel vs. Robson Almen and Ladie Jack, a dispute over the 2015 election results for Majuro mayor.

• Irooj Michael Kabua vs. MV Mell Springwood, concerning the question of authority to file a civil suit against the vessel that ran aground in Kwajalein Atoll in 2015.

• Highland Floating Rate Opportunities Fund and others vs. Dryships Inc. and others, in a dispute over the dissolution of an RMI registered off-shore company and re-registration in another country.

• Kejjo Bien and MJCC vs. Mili Atoll Local Government, Tommy Leban and RMI, which is an appeal of a High Court order directing Bien and MJCC to pay triple damages in the matter of the use of donor funding for a boat purchase.

The sixth case on the Supreme Court’s agenda did not have oral argument as both parties agreed to have the court rule on written submissions. The case involves Lokoro Ishiguro vs. Imam Madiullah Joyia Ahmadiuyya and the Muslim Jama’at Republic of the Marshall Islands, Inc. related to a land issue.

Read more about this in the August 30, 2019 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.