On August 1, 1950, President Truman signed into law the Organic Act of Guam. This Act accorded Guam the status of territory and established for the citizens of Guam a Bill of Rights, similar to that found in the United States Constitution. The Organic Act established the foundation for Guam’s modern local government, affording the people of Guam the first meaningful opportunity in more than three centuries to set and administer policy and laws for themselves.
The Organic Act vested the judicial authority of Guam in the District Court of Guam, and such other courts as created by the laws of Guam. In 1950, the Guam Legislature introduced the “Judiciary Act,” strengthening and reorganizing the island court system. This 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 certain misdemeanor crimes. The Act also created a court to deal with petty offenses, in which the maximum punishment did not exceed a five dollar fine, presided over by the commissioner of each municipality.
The District Court had jurisdiction over local cases as well as federal cases concerning the Constitution, treaties, and federal law. Appeals from the District Court went to the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit and from there to the U.S. Supreme Court. The District Court also served as the court of appeals for cases decided by the island courts. For the first time, Guam’s judiciary exercised certain powers independently of the Executive Branch. Before this time, no appeal of a local decision was possible beyond the Naval Governor of Guam.
The Superior Court of Guam, as we know it today, was created 24 years after the signing of the Organic Act, when the Guam Legislature passed the Court Reorganization Act of 1974. The Superior Court was given jurisdiction over all cases arising out of Guam laws, while the District Court retained its appellate function. The Island Court and the Police Court were both subsumed into the Superior Court of Guam. Former Chief Judge of the Island Court Joaquin Perez became Guam’s first Presiding Judge on July 1, 1974; and the Judges assigned to the Island Court and Police Court, were then assigned to the Superior Court.
As Guam’s population increased, so did the need to expand court operations. In 1987, the first of the specialty courts was created when the Family Court was established to address juvenile crime. By 1991, the need to physically expand was met with the construction of the Guam Judicial Center. In 1994, the legislature expanded the number of Superior Court judges to 7 to effectively address the rapidly increasing case load. Other specialty courts were established within the Superior Court to address specific cases such as the Juvenile Drug Court (2002), Adult Drug Court (2004), Mental Health Court (2009), and DWI Court (2011).
The Court Reorganization Act of 1974 also established the first Supreme Court of Guam and on October 10, 1974, Presiding Judge Perez became Chief Justice of Guam. The court’s existence was short-lived. In the 1977 case Territory of Guam v. Olsen, 431 U.S. 195 (1977), the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Organic Act did not authorize the transfer of appellate jurisdiction from the District Court of Guam, and the locally established Supreme Court of Guam was abolished.
It took another act of Congress to pave the way for the establishment of the Guam Supreme Court. The Omnibus Territories Act of 1984 amended Guam’s Organic Act to allow the Guam Legislature to create an appellate court to hear all cases in Guam over which any court established by the Constitution and laws of the United States does not have exclusive jurisdiction. The Act provided that for the first 15 years after establishment of that court, the Ninth Circuit would maintain judicial overview in the appeals process. In all other aspects, the appeals process would be the same as each state. The Omnibus Territories Act, however, was silent on exactly how the newly created judicial system would be administered.
In 1986, Guam voters approved Article 4 of the Guam Commonwealth Act which sought nondiscriminatory, state-like treatment for Guam’s courts and the elimination of the review process of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals mandated by the Omnibus Territories Act of 1984. Although ‘Guam’s Quest for Commonwealth Status’ never resulted in a change in Guam’s political status or establishment of a new governmental framework, local leaders continued the push for the independence and supremacy of the Guam’s courts.
In December 31, 1992, led by Legislative Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Pilar C. Lujan, the 21st Guam Legislature unanimously passed Public Law 21-147, the Frank G. Lujan Memorial Court Reorganization Act, reestablishing the Supreme Court of Guam. Because the Guam Supreme Court was not created directly by the Organic Act but instead by the Guam Legislature, it proved to be vulnerable to the winds of political change. In March 1996, only hours after the first Justices of the Supreme Court of Guam were sworn-in, the Legislature passed a bill that removed from the Supreme Court certain inherent powers of administrative authority over the local Judiciary.
Guam’s leaders who envisioned the Judiciary as an independent branch of government continued to pursue this goal. Guam Delegate Robert A. Underwood introduced H.R. 2370, the Judicial Empowerment Act of 1997, in the 105th Congress. The legislation would amend the Organic Act of Guam and establish the Judiciary as a truly independent, co-equal branch of the government of Guam and federally establish the Office of the Attorney General of Guam. The bill was amended and only the portion relating to the Office of Attorney General was passed.
Congressman Underwood would introduce subsequent legislation vesting judicial authority in a “Unified Judicial System” headed by the Supreme Court of Guam in the 106th (H.R. 4031, March 2000) and 107th (H.R. 521, February 2001) Congresses. United States Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii introduced companion legislation in the Senate Chamber of the 107th Congress (S. 2823, July, 2002).
In April 11, 2003, the 27th Guam Legislature, led by Legislative Judiciary Chairman F. Randall Cunliffe, passed Substitute Bill No. 48(COR) to Re-organize the Judiciary as the Third Co-Equal and Independent Branch of the Government of Guam, reconstituting the Judicial Council as Head of a Unified Judiciary with the Chief Justice of Guam presiding. The legislation was vetoed on April 25, 2003.
In the first year of her term, Guam Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo introduced H.R. 2400 (June 2003) in the 108th Congress. By October 31, 2003, the 27th Guam Legislature overrode the veto and enacted Bill No. 48(COR) into law as Public Law 27-31. A Unified Judiciary was finally established.
This effort culminated in an amendment to the Organic Act that provided for separation of powers. On October 30, 2004, H.R. 2400 (Pub. L. 108-378) became federal law and the Judiciary of Guam was placed on equal footing with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Territory of Guam. As an independent branch, the Judiciary would be more capable of safeguarding individual rights and liberties, which history instructs must be immune from political instability.
In January 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Santos v. Guam, a case that had already been decided by the Supreme Court of Guam, thereby confirming for the first time that the Ninth Circuit no longer had jurisdiction to hear appeals from Guam courts. Since then, appeals from decisions of the Supreme Court of Guam have been subject to review only by the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Guam has officially taken its place as an equal of other states’ highest courts.