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Judiciary History
Judiciary History - Justice on Guam: "Post-World War II"

On December 8, 1941, the island of Guam was invaded by Japanese forces and occupied until July 21, 1944, interrupting the growth of the judicial systems that was taking place. Yet it itself, the aftermath of the war would bring about great changes in Guam’s economical, social and political make-up. Changes that would affect the judicial system as well.


"When the American forces liberated the island, a state of emergency martial law was declared and Exception Military Courts were created for the trial of civilians on Guam. The Summary Provost Court was presided over by one naval officer. This court had jurisdiction over cases punishable with fines of less than one hundred dollars and imprisonment not in excess of one year, or both. The next court in the new system was the Superior Provost Court which consisted of at least one officer. It had jurisdiction over cases with unlimited fines and imprisonment of less than ten years. The Military Commission, the highest court, tried all the more serious crimes.

The courts operated without the benefit of a jury. There was no higher court to appeal a decision, but all cases were reviewed by a higher authority from the Governor’s legal staff. The approval of the Secretary of the Navy was required before execution of criminal case sentences. The Secretary’s review remained in existence only while the military courts were functioning.

Judge Vicente P. Camacho and Judge Jose C. Manibusan were the only Guamanian judges when the Naval Government was reestablished in 1946. When Judge Vicente Camacho retired in 1947, Governor Charles A Pownall appointed Island Attorney Vicente C. Reyes as judge. The most controversial issue rising out of Land and Claims Commission was the acquisition of land.


On April 23, 1945, Congress passed the Guam Meritorious Claims Act, forming the Land and Claims Commission, which began its task as the government’s real estate agency. As part of its collateral duties, it reviewed and processed war claims by the Chamorros for loss and damage to real and personal property and, in particular, for personal injury and death claims. 711 injury and death claims were filed as of 1947 for the total amount of $1,396,005. The U.S. navy had placed a ceiling of $4,000 on each death claim, of which only one was awarded. The others fell far below this amount.

The most controversial issue rising out of Land and Claims Commission was the acquisition of land. According to Guahan/Guam History of our Island, (Pedro C. Sanchez): "In their eagerness to obtain signatures of consent, some Navy and Land Claim officials and agents were accused of intimidating and threatening landowners, most of whom were plain ordinary islanders, unsophisticated and uninformed about their legal rights. To make matters worse, Guam, in the late forties, had less than five private attorneys, only one of whom, namely, Paul Dungca Palting, had a university law degree and stateside practice. Without private attorneys experienced in real estate and land condemnation proceedings to defend them, Guamanian landowners were no match for the well trained lawyers and agents of the Navy and Land Claims Commission. Moreover, Guamanian landowners found Superior Court Judge John Fisher, who was selected from the states and appointed by the Navy, taking the side of the Navy during court proceedings."


On November 1, 1947, the Guam Congress approved the establishment of the Superior Court. One year later, it passed a bill to abolish the court. Apparently, the Guamanians were dissatisfied with the actions of the court in land condemnation cases. Dissatisfaction was also expressed over the dual function of the Superior Court judge in acting as Presiding Justice of the Courts of Appeals. On January 3, 1949, the Governor vetoed the bill to abolish the Superior Court, giving as his reasons the large volume of land matters requiring its attention. Superior Court Judge Fisher was given exclusive jurisdiction to hear and settle land disputes arising out of the military land taking. By the end of the Navy Administration in 1950, about one third of Guam was safely in the hands of military and federal government.


On July 15, 1946, the first bill providing for an organic act for Guam as well as citizenship for its people was introduced by Rep. Robert A. Grant in the form of H.R. 7044. This provided that Guam be accorded the status of territory with the privilege of sending a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill was never even reported out of a committee as was the fate of all the bills introduced during the 79th Congress.

"...the Guam Congress approved the establishment of the Superior Court. One year later, it passed a bill to abolish the court."


The issue of local authority came to a head when the House of Assembly of the Guam Congress subpoenaed an American Civil service employee of the Navy who might have knowledge of an attempt to take advantage of Guam’s import-export market. He refused to answer the subpoena and was supported by Governor Pownall. Angered and frustrated by the lack of respect and authority afforded them, the Assemblymen walked out en mass on March 6, 1949. Governor Pownall requested them to return and when they refused, he dismissed them.

This dramatic encounter received national attention, and widespread publicity, that generated a great deal of support for home rule and U.S. citizenship for the Guamanian people. Though the Assemblymen were reinstated by the Governor, U.S. citizenship and some form of home rule was a foregone conclusion.


To pacify the island until the U.S. Congress could pass an Organic Act, President Truman issued and Executive Order No. 10077 which ordered:

  1. The administration of the island of Guam is hereby transferred from the Secretary of the Navy to the Secretary of the Interior, such transfer to become effective on July 1, 1950.
  2. The Department of the navy and the Department of the Interior shall proceed with plans for the transfer of the administration of the island of Guam as explained in the above mentioned memorandum of understanding between the two departments.
  3. When the transfer of administration made by this order becomes effective, the Secretary of the Interior shall take such action as may be necessary and appropriate, and in harmony with applicable law, for the administration of civil government in the island of Guam.
  4. The executive departments and agencies of the government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Departments of the Navy and Interior in the effectuation of the provisions of this order.
  5. The said Executive Order No. 108-A on December 5, 1898, is revoked, effective July 1, 1950.

"The people of Guam were afforded the opportunity to set and administer policy and laws for the island of Guam."

In accordance with this order, Mr. Carlton Skinner, a public relations officer in the Department of Interior, was selected by the Interior Department, nominated by the Navy Department and then appointed by the President to serve as Guam’s first civilian Governor. He took the oath of office on September 17, 1949.

On October 3, 1949, the House of Public Lands Committee reported out H.R. 4499 which would eventually be passed into law containing provisions known as the Organic Act of Guam. Guam now is a U.S. Unincorporated Territory, was granted, among other things, some leeway in forming the Judicial Branch of Government of Guam. The first such rights afforded them since the Chamorros lost to Spain in 385 years hence.


On August 1, 1950, President Truman signed into law the Organic Act of Guam which gave Guamanian certain rights and protection under the U.S. Constitution. The people of Guam were afforded the opportunity to set and administer policy and laws for the island of Guam. Included in this was the Judicial Branch of the Government of Guam.


In 1950 as part of the Judiciary Act, a judiciary reorganization bill was prepared to strengthen the island court system. Judge Albert B. Maria, then Chairman of the United States Judicial Conference, Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chief Judge of the Emergency Court of Appeals, came to Guam to assist in the review of the court system and the preparation of the judiciary bill. He was assisted by Attorney John Bohn in the development of an act that vested in the District Court of Guam territorial jurisdiction in civil cases having a value of more than $2,000 and, in criminal cases, jurisdiction over all felonies.

Known as Public Law 17, the "Judiciary Act" abolished the Justice Court, the Traffic Branch of the Police Court, and the Court of Appeals. The duties of the latter were assumed by the District Court. Before the Act, the court system consisted of the Court of Appeals, the Island Court and the Police Court. The reorganization reduced the number of courts to the District Court of Guam, the Island Court, the Police Court and the Commissioners Court.

The Judiciary Act gave the Island Court of Guam jurisdiction over misdemeanors and civil cases having a value of less than $2,000 and created a Police Court with jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases in which the maximum penalty did not exceed a fine of $100 or imprisonment of six months, or both.

The Act also created a Commissioner’s Court to be presided over by the commissioner of each municipality to deal with petty offenses for which the maximum punishment did not exceed $5. The law also defined the powers, qualifications, and disqualifications o fudges and referees and specified the duties of court clerks, reporters, marshals, the attorney general, and the island attorney or prosecuting attorney. It provided requisites for admission to the practice of law and for a probation system.

After 1950, the District Court of Guam, which had the same jurisdiction as a District Court in the US over federal questions, was established. For the first time, the judiciary in Guam, exercised its powers independent of the executive branch. However, a dual judicial structure began -- the District Court with responsibility both for federal and local cases, and the Island Court established by the Guam Legislature with responsibility strictly for local cases.


In Guahan/Guam A History of Our Island (historian Sanchez) sets the following description of the effect of the Organic Act on the Courts and its appellate provisions: "Section 22(a) of the Organic Act established the third branch of the territorial government. It created the District Court of Guam, a court of record, and vested it with judicial authority, as well as, "in such court or courts heretofore or hereafter established by the laws of Guam."

The District Court of Guam was given the jurisdiction of a District Court of the United States, "in all cases arising under the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States." It was also given "original jurisdiction in all other cases in Guam,’ provided the jurisdiction had not been transferred by the Legislature to other court or courts established by it.

The District Court also serves as a court of appeals from the island courts. Appeals from the District Court go to the Court of Appeals of the U.S. Ninth District Court in California and from there to the U.S. Supreme Court. A few Guam cases have reached the Supreme Court. Before the passage of the Organic Act, there was no appeal beyond the Naval Governor of Guam.

The District Court of Guam’s jurisdiction and procedures follow U.S. district courts in the U.S. mainland. The jurisdiction and procedure in the courts established by the Legislature are as prescribed by the laws of Guam.


Under a provision of the Organic Act, the President of the United States appoints the judge of the District Court of Guam, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate...... The Act provided for federal government financing of the District Court.

In the first 35 years, the turnover in District Court judges had been minimal. The Honorable Paul D. Shriver of Colorado served as the first Guam District Court judge. After completing his term, he was relieved by the Judge Eugene Gilmartin in 1956. Judge Gilmartin died in office in 1961. Judge Shriver returned to the District Court bench and served for another 8-year term. When he retired from the bench, Judge Shriver was succeeded by Island Court Judge Cristobal C. Duenas, a Guamanian graduate of the University of Michigan law school. Judge Duenas was reappointed after his first 8-year term. In 1990, he retired.

When Judge Lujan retired, the Police Court was abolished in a court reorganization act and its duties were assumed by the Island Court.


The three Guamanian judges who were holding judgeships under the Naval Government were named by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Guam Legislature, to the island courts under the new Act. They were Judge Jose C. Manibusan, who became the first senior judge of the Island Court, Judge Vicente C. Reyes, and Judge Francisco G. Lujan, who remained with the Police Court. As the number of court cases increased, Judge Joaquin C. Perez was added to the Island Court as a fourth judge.

Upon the retirement of Judge Manibusan, Judge Perez became senior judge. When Judge Lujan retired, the Police Court was abolished in a court reorganization act and its duties were assumed by the Island Court.

Trial by Jury

The Organic Act was silent on the right to trial by jury and left it up to the Guam Legislature to decide if and when to introduce it to the Guam courts. At the time of the passage of the Act there was the prevailing opinion that the small size of the population of Guam, the close family ties, the extended family tradition, and a whole system of other relationships which Guamanians formed among themselves would make it difficult to find an impartial jury. The matter, however, was decided with a relatively short period of time not by the Legislature but by a federal court in a criminal case entitled Government of Guam v. Hatchett.


In December 1952, Hatchett was arrested on a felony charge of involuntary manslaughter and arraigned, by information, before the District Court of Guam. There being no jury system on Guam, he was not indicted by grand jury as he would have been in the mainland. The District Court found Hatchett guilty as charged. He appealed to the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit. The Court of Appeals ruled in a landmark decision that the prosecution of a felony must be brought by grand jury indictments unless the accused person waives such right. With this decision establishing the right to trial by jury on Guam, the Third Guam Legislature quickly passed Public Law 42 which provided a jury system for the island courts.


The first Guam Legislature passed a Juvenile Delinquency Act in 1932 which revised the procedure for handling young offenders. Prior to 1952, juveniles were treated as if they were adult criminals. The Juvenile Court was created as a division of the Island Court.


In 1947, Guam would open a new courthouse in Agana to replace the old courthouse which was located in the Robert Coontz building that was destroyed in the liberation of Guam. The courthouse would be transferred to the Legislature in the late "60's. On February 27, 1968, the court would open up its new courthouse located in West O’Brien Drive directly across the Flores Library.


In 1974, Public Law 12-85, the Court Reorganization Act would substantially alter the judicial jurisdiction of the local island court and rename it the Superior Court of Guam. The Superior Court was given jurisdiction over all cases arising out of Guam laws. The District Court retained its appellate function. Under the act establishing the Superior Court of Guam, the title of senior judge was changed to Presiding Judge of the Superior Court. Chief Judge of the Island Court Joaquin Perez became Guam’s first Presiding Judge. He was succeeded upon his retirement by Judge Paul J. Abbate, Jr.


Named to the bench between the sixties and eighties were Judge Paul J. Abbate, Jr., who was attorney general prior to his appointment; Judge Joaquin V.E. Manibusan who served as chief clerk of court for several years; Judge Vicente C. Reyes who was Guam’s first island attorney; and Judge Richard Benson. Also named to the Superior Court were Judge Janet H. Weeks, the first and only woman judge in the entire history of the island; as well as Judge John Raker who died while in office in 1984. Also appointed to the island’s court system was Judge Ramon Diaz, the first Filipino named to a judgeship since Judge Pancracio Palting was appointed judge in the twenties.

Two young Guamanian attorneys were named Superior Court judges in 1985. They were Judge Peter C. Siguenza, Jr. and Judge Benjamin J. Cruz. They were the youngest ever to be named to the bench. Both graduated from American law schools.

On July 14, 1988, the Honorable Alberto C. Lamorena III succeeded Judge Abbate as the third Presiding Judge of the Superior Court of Guam. A descendant of both Chamorro and Filipino heritage, he would be the youngest presiding judge appointed to the Superior Court of Guam. A former attorney, senator and chairman of Ways and Means, he was appointed by Governor Joseph Ada and confirmed by the 20th Guam Legislature.

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