The Corner

Voting Discrimination Struck Down in Northern Mariana Islands — DOJ Nowhere to Be Seen

President Barack Obama can brag all he wants about the voting-rights cases his administration has allegedly “taken on.” But here’s a case conspicuously absent from that bogus list.

Judge Ramona Manglona of the federal district court for the Northern Mariana Islands just threw out a blatantly unconstitutional provision of the territorial government that strictly limited registration and voting for a referendum to only those “persons of Northern Marianas descent.”

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) defines persons of Northern Marianas descent as those who are “at least one-quarter Northern Marianas Chamorro or Northern Marianas Carolinian blood or a combination thereof or an adopted child of a person of Northern Marianas descent if adopted while under the age of eighteen years.” One is considered a “full-blooded” Chamorro or Carolinian if “born or domiciled” in the territory by 1950.

Chamorros are the original natives who inhabited the CNMI when Spain took control in the 1600s. Carolinians first migrated there in 1815 after a typhoon devastated their homes in the Caroline Islands. In 1976, the CNMI became a territorial commonwealth of the U.S. after Congress ratified a plebiscite of island voters.

John Davis, the plaintiff in this lawsuit, is a resident and taxpayer of CNMI but does not count as a “native” by blood and ancestry. Therefore, the Northern Marianas Descent Registry refuses to give Davis an “Official Northern Marianas Descent Identification Card” that would allow him to vote in the scheduled referendum.

That referendum would change the definition of a native from someone with a “one-quarter” blood quantum to anyone with “some degree of” Chamorro or Carolinian blood quantum. Of course, just like in the segregated South of the Jim Crow era, it will be up to a court to determine your blood quantum for legal purposes.

The same referendum directs anyone who is less than one-quarter “native” to “provide evidence to support that he/she possess some degree” of Chamorro or Carolinian blood to the Superior Court of CNMI, which will have the duty of certifying whether you are a person of Northern Marianas descent.

As Judge Manglona concluded, this system violates both the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition against racial discrimination in voting and the Fourteenth Amendment’s requirement of equal protection.

The CNMI government tried to claim that its racial classification is political not racial, a refrain similar to the preposterous argument raised by racists in the Old South.

But the court disagreed, pointing out that “race, as used in the Reconstruction-era civil-rights laws, meant something other than or in addition to skin color or shared physical features. It also referred to classes of persons singled out solely because of their ancestry or ethnic characteristics.” Ancestry cannot be used as a proxy for race.

The court granted summary judgment to Davis on his claim that the CNMI’s discriminatory registration and voting rules violated 42 U.S.C. §1983, which prohibits state officials from abridging rights created by “the Constitution or laws of the United States.” The court also found that CNMI violated 42 U.S.C. §1971(a), which guarantees the right of “citizens of the United States who are otherwise qualified” to vote in all state or territorial elections “without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The enforcement of this statute is the direct responsibility of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

There is no question that CNMI’s voting prohibitions are racially discriminatory. In fact, they are reminiscent of the odious “one-drop rule” of racial segregation codes or the First Regulation to the Reichs Citizenship Law of Nov. 14, 1935, which similarly defined Jews based on their ancestry.

Yet John Davis was forced to bring this suit at his own expense, with his own lawyer, because the Justice Department was nowhere to be found. It had no interest in filing a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act against a blatantly discriminatory and repugnant law that prevented John Davis from voting because he doesn’t have the right “blood” quantum.

Like the slam-dunk case against the New Black Panthers for voter intimidation in Philadelphia that DOJ dropped, John Davis’s case shows once again that the only stars guiding the Eric Holder Justice Department are race and politics — not the pursuit of justice.

― Hans A. von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Along with John Fund, he is the co-author of Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk (Encounter, 2012) and the upcoming Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department (Broadside, June 2014).

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