Aguon leads charge on Guam plebiscite hearing in Hawaii

L-R: Guam Special Assistant Attorney General Julian Aguon; Arnold "Dave" Davis whose challenging native-only voter registration in Guam's long-hoped-for self-determination plebiscite; and former Guam Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett Anderson

The sentiment of Guam’s top government lawyer to her special counsel: a job well done! Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett Anderson is praising the performance of her Special Assistant AG for delivering fresh, informed oral arguments in Guam’s longstanding “political status” plebiscite case on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court. The Guam AG’s office presented its case during a hearing at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law in Honolulu on Thursday.

Guam – Can the native inhabitants of Guam exercise their right to self-determination under the Supreme Law of the Land? That’s what attorneys and scholars hope to find out soon in the constitutional suffrage case of a tiny Pacific island — a case whose outcome could set historic precedents about what rights and privileges legally apply to those who are both Pacific Islanders and Americans — and could challenge native peoples to contemplate more carefully the pros and cons of each affiliation.

A news release from the Office of the Attorney General states that “Special Assistant Attorney General Julian Aguon was first to argue on Guam’s behalf defending the territory’s plebiscite statute” in presenting the island’s case to a three-judge panel yesterday.

Aguon was on familiar ground at his old haunts. The distinguished human rights attorney earned his juris doctorate at U of H’s Richardson Law School in 2009.

Newstalk K57’s Patti Arroyo spoke to Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett Anderson on Friday morning, before the Guam AG departed Honolulu.

“A couple of the professors there wanted to talk to him more personally,” Barrett Anderson said. “We went then to an immediate luncheon, because we were all very hungry, and [a professor] from Stanford University invited him to appear at Stanford to give a presentation. The dean of UH Law School was there, and so Julian is developing for himself a reputation in the scope of legal scholastics that I don’t know anyone else beyond that, that has that, especially at his young age and, you know, he was so humble…he is so good at what he does…and it was through his efforts that we were able to get [our case heard].”

Litigation over a constitutional crisis was first sparked in 2011 by Guam resident Arnold “Dave” Davis, who sued the Guam Election Commission in protest when he was denied voter registration in a prospective native inhabitants plebiscite. Plebiscite law would box Davis in as an unqualified non-native. The case has remained on a slope of gradual refinement between US district and appellate courts ever since.

At first blush the US District Court of Guam ruled against Davis, stating his case was not ripe because no election was imminent. As PNC has reported, the Ninth Circuit reversed that decision on the basis that Davis had been denied voter registration, so the Ninth remanded the case back to Guam, where the District Court then ruled the local legislature’s plebiscite enactment racially discriminatory and that it denies Davis’s 14th Amendment equal protection rights and 15th Amendment voter rights.

Over a year ago Barrett Anderson filed a government appeal challenging the decision on the basis that cases cited in the Ninth Circuit decision do not apply to a purely political plebiscite whose outcome has no power to change Guam’s political status by law, anyway. The notion is that the plebiscite is designed merely to be a statement of preference and free expression.

This week’s oral arguments opened a new case chapter before the appellate panel in the Aloha State. According to Barrett Anderson, “The federal judges appeared very receptive to our legal argument that ancestry should not be viewed in Guam’s case as a pretext to racial discrimination because that was not the intent of the law, nor is there evidence to support such a contention.”

Barrett Anderson says the judges were engaged by the arguments presented and that the ramifications of the case will clearly have “far reaching constitutional impact.” She adds that Davis’s attorneys were very consistent in their arguments, but thinks the Government of Guam’s arguments were “far more provoking.” And that the judges very much appreciated the level of lawyering at hand.

Guam’s 1996 special referendum law seeks the will of Guam’s native inhabitants in determining the island’s political status by allowing only registered native inhabitants to choose among independence, statehood, or free association with the United States. Independence would spell sovereignty; statehood—another star on the American flag and the full-fledged rights and privileges of other American states; while free association would grant Guam citizens freedom to live, work and travel to US destinations while granting the US military continued exclusive access to Guam and its surrounding waters.

A decision in the case is expected in a few months.