The case involves property the government believes is part of “Spanish Crown” lands, which are not eligible to be returned to original landowners.
Guam – Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson has been disqualified from representing the government in a land dispute case involving Spanish Crown lands up in Dededo.
Superior Court Judge Anita Sukola barred the AG from the case because of a conflict of interest.
The case dates back to 2003, when the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission began a mass distribution of land that was previously condemned back to the original landowners.
One of the landowners, Evelyn O’Keefe claimed some family parcels. The Guam Ancestral Lands Commission returned some of the property, but denied her request for three lots, specifically, land they had determined was originally Spanish Crown Lands, which are not eligible for return to original landowners.
But O’Keefe fought the decision, showing proof that the three lots were not part of Spanish Crown property. The GALC agreed to settle, but while in probate court, GovGuam decided to intervene, noting that the case belonged in Superior Court.
The probate court judge at the time was Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson. She denied GovGuam’s request to intervene and granted the settlement agreement between O’Keefe and GALC.
However, GovGuam came back and fought the decision, filing a complaint in Superior Court for a quiet title of the land and a declaratory judgment.
In this new case, GovGuam is being represented by the Attorney General’s Office with Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson as the Attorney General. The landowners opposed GovGuam, arguing that the attorney general and her entire office has a clear conflict of interest since one, Barrett-Anderson was the probate judge in the settlement case and two, evidence suggests the AG had actually communicated with assistant attorneys general on the case.
GovGuam fought the motion to disqualify, noting that although the attorney general presided over the probate case, it is not the same case. Further, GovGuam argued that even if Barrett-Anderson is disqualified, the entire office should not be.
Superior Court Judge Anita Sukola disagreed with GovGuam. In her order granting the landowner’s request, Sukola says GovGuam failed to provide evidence that the AG’s Office screened the Attorney General from the case.
In fact, Sukola says evidence supports otherwise. That’s because at one point, the landowner’s attorney attempted to obtain emails, briefings and other correspondence within the AG’s Office regarding the case through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The request was denied on grounds that it was exempt from disclosure. “Although the specific nature of these emails is unknown given their ‘exempt from disclosure’ classification,” Sukola writes, “this Court must nevertheless assume that the Attorney General—before and after officially disqualifying herself from this case—openly communicated with members of her office about matters involving the estate.”
The case will have another hearing on March 31st.