Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A conversation with Judge Kenneth Govendo, MV 15

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

The branch of government that gets the least attention is the judiciary. I had a conversation with Family Court Judge Kenneth Govendo, a CNMI resident for 31 years, and he offered his thoughts on sentencing, the evolution of jurisprudence in the CNMI and the day to day life of a judge.

JCT: Like a lot of people, I read the sentences handed out to people whether it is for domestic violence, copper wire theft or other things, and frankly they are exceedingly light. I don't know if you follow the blogs, but some people have gone bananas on you, and other judges, over this. Is this the usual CNMI has no money thing, and basically why does this happen?

JG: I don’t read the blogs, but I am assuming it is “light” sentences that are driving the bloggers bananas. This is an important area so I appreciate the opportunity to try to educate. In criminal felony cases, judges order pre-sentence investigative reports that are prepared by the Office of Adult Probation. In this report the probation officer investigates the defendant, his family, employment history, life and record.

Often a sentence is suggested. I have told probation officers doing reports for me that I am also interested in the victim and what the crime has done to the victim physically, mentally and financially. Sometimes at sentencing hearings, testimony is taken. After considering all these things, the judge imposes a sentence. Each judge has the ability to sentence independently of what other judges have done in similar cases. The newspaper stories reporting sentencing do not report enough detail about the sentence because reporters are usually not present at sentencing. The public reads about the crime and the sentence after the reporter has read the judgment and conviction order and written the story.

Sometimes a reader can come to the conclusion that the sentence is too light. In most cases there are no trials -- cases are resolved by plea agreements. In almost all cases where a plea is taken followed by a sentence, neither the reporter nor the reader is present in court. Simply stated, after reviewing written documents and hearing things in court, a judge can conclude that some people deserve a second chance or leniency and some don’t. If a reader actually went to court for a sentencing and listened (or heard what was said) he or she would have a better idea about the reasons for the sentence.

I sentenced one domestic violence abuser to five years in jail, no parole. There was a serious beating involved. I have given others one or two days in jail for a first offense provided there were no serious injuries involved. I have also issued stern warnings that another offense would be dealt with much more harshly. Each sentence is different and a lot of discretion is left to the judge, but the judge has the benefit of the prosecutor who represents the general public’s and victim’s interest and the benefit of the defense attorney who represents the defendant’s interest.

JCT: In terms of issues that you face first as an attorney and later as a judge, how have these islands changed in terms of crime, legal issues and just as a place to live in the thirty plus years you've been living and working in this area of the world?

JG: In terms of crime, the most serious change in the last 30 years is that we now have a lot of multi-ethnic organized crime here. In my opinion, the only thing that will give us an opportunity to save ourselves is federalization of immigration. Under it, we would have a chance to get rid of organized criminals and keep them from coming back. It is impossible to keep bad foreign elements out of the states; it is not impossible here since no one sneaks in.

The legal issues here have always been interesting and are often unique. We have a relatively sophisticated body of law which we continue to refine. We seem to be making progress in most areas of law and we are now starting down the road to protecting human rights. We are weakest in protecting our public land due to our panic about the economy and our inability to think in the future.

As a place to live, I have been living here for over one-half my life and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It was love at first sight! I have believed from day one that this place is worth fighting for and I believe it to this day more than ever. I am depressed about the number of locals who are leaving the islands and our main emphasis should be in getting them back here to work in the private sector for livable wages.

On the positive side, we don’t have drive-by shootings, gangs, car jackings, auto theft and kidnappings and a lot of other bad things found in the states and elsewhere. Since we know what some of these things are, we have the opportunity to keep them from happening here. On the negative side, the waters around Saipan are no longer pristine. We have settled for less in the name of economic development when we could have had both.

JCT: This is a small place. Everyone seems to know each other. How does that fact impact the rule of law?

JG: The smallness of a place should not impact at all on the rule of law. Judges have to be sensitive about the fact that everyone seems to know or know of each other. Most readers are aware of the word, recusal. Recusal takes place when a judge voluntarily takes himself out a case involving a family member, close relative or former business associate. This is done so the public won’t think someone is going to get a favor from the judge. Judges also have a duty to hear cases. That’s why we became judges. So we just can’t recuse ourselves from every case because we know a party. If the facts and the law warrant me to decide against someone I know, then I do it.

JCT: I've seen judges attacked and criticized in the press a lot more here than I've seen in other places. Why do you believe that happens?

JG: Judges deal with many people who have big egos. Even though the present judiciary is recognized by the public as being a pretty good one, the CNMI is in the beginning stage of its development in terms of respecting its judiciary. The judiciary is going to have to start “defending” itself and not be dependent on the bar association to do it for us. We need a public relations person to explain why things are done and work closely and continually with the media. It will go a long way here and show people why we are a separate and independent branch of government.

I am not saying that judges should not be subject to criticism, but it must be done in an ethical way by members of the bar. Members of the bar know how important an independent judiciary is to a society and how important respecting that judiciary is. For that reason they are obligated not to demean the judiciary.

JCT: What is the day to day life like for a judge on the bench? Is it a lonely life? Do you get to go out and have a drink with friends like regular people, or do you have to severely curtail your private life and social relationships because you never know who might appear before you in court?

JG: I am in my office signing documents before court starts at 9:00. I then take the bench where I spend more hours per day than in my office. I go out for lunch, come back and handle the afternoon calendar. I leave between 4:30 and 5:00. Family court can be very tense and emotional and requires a judge to stay focused and concentrate at all times on what is happening in court, especially in domestic violence matters and cases involving children. Sometimes, when I leave, I’m very tired mentally.

Socially, I choose not to associate with attorneys unless it’s at some kind of function. I definitely miss more extensive socializing with attorneys and I am sorry to have missed the opportunity with many of our newer attorneys who will always know me as Judge Govendo. The thing I miss the most since becoming a judge is writing letters to the editor! 2007 was a banner year! All our friends are regular people, so we are not lonely.

In court, there have been occasions where I have advised attorneys or one of the parties that I know the party on the other side. I explain the relationship and most the time both sides want me to preside over the case. If it’s former client, then I recuse myself.


Marianas Eye said...

Hi Jeff,

Very nice article, and very informative. The interview format is a refreshing approach.


O. Calimbas said...

Dear Jeff,

Ditto on marianas eye's comment. And for an attorney, especially one that is new to the islands, it's nice to hear a more personal side from the one behind the bench.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff:

This is a great article and Judge Govendo is the man for Domestic cases. I'm still troubled with the fact that the Presiding Judge Naraja continues to sit on the bench. You and I know that he made the lousiest decision in that one particular homicide - domestic violence case. Did you see that poem and hear what happened in his court? Thats a complete shame reflecting back on the Judicial Branch. A standing ovation for Judge Govendo for doing an outstanding job as our Associate Judge and hope that he will one day be the Presiding Judge.

Jeff said...

I don't know the poem and didn't hear what happened.

Bruce A. Bateman said...

Nice job, Jeff. A sugesstion.... maybe an interview with another judge or two for balance? They can't react to specific cases but maybe a generality or two about case types. Again, nice work. I like the format.


Anonymous said...

It's best we just leave that issue alone to allow the families of the deceased victim to heal. This is something though that should concern everyone else. It was a miscarriage of justice that no one wants to take the blame for but it's very obvious.

The Last Weatherman said...

The "banner" year ain't over yet and the public would like to hear your views in letters to the editor.

You are also wecome to visit my US History class anytime.

How is Roger doing?

8 unit commercial 50yrs 350k
3 bed Capital Hill 90k
Call A1 Real Estate 233-1144

bradinthesand said...

why didn't you ask him about his choice in mustache styles?

inquiring minds want to know....

it's a fashion coup that ranks right up there with tucker carlson's bow tie.

he should think about presiding over all of those cases that the fashion police bring to justice.