CNMI Associate Judge Censured

December 2, 2010

There is little about the CNMI legal system that makes much sense to me.  From the failure to make arrests or even thoroughly investigate crimes, to the ridiculously lenient sentences, to the early parole and commutations given to violent criminals, to prison furloughs based on nepotism, to taking a prisoner from jail to give the governor a massage -- it's more than mind-boggling.  Every part of the system from the bottom up seems loose and unstructured.

In a system where everything seems so relaxed it seemed to surprise many that Associate Judge Ken Govendo was publicly censured and removed from the Family Court for a period of a year as a result of inappropriate remarks he made from the bench.  The Supreme Court also ruled that he must publish a letter of apology to the people of the CNMI and take a course on judicial ethics at his own expense.

Was this a correct ruling?  It appears that the action was taken because the judge had been warned, yet continued his questionable courtroom behavior.  According to the ruling, the judge had been "put on notice that his remarks during the adoption procedure were inappropriate."  The ruling continues:
This served as a warning that he needed to tone down his rhetoric. Instead, Judge Govendo disregarded this warning and engaged in another diatribe. This deeply worries us because our initial message did not seem to get across. Judge Govendo still operates under the mindset that he is totally unrestrained in his right to speak his mind in court, and that gentle warnings issue by this Court can be disregarded with impunity. The Court would think that a footnote in one of our opinions publicly acknowledging inappropriate language would be sufficient to effectuate a change in behavior—apparently it is not. We will seriously consider Judge Govendo’s past inability to conform his conduct to appropriate standards.
Judge Govendo apologized publicly for the statements at the sanctions hearing.

Perhaps what is more interesting than the ruling was the reaction from the public that was expressed in comments published in the Marianas Variety.  I can understand recognizing the accomplishments of a judge who has ruled over the award-winning Family Court. I can understand showing support for a person who has contributed much to a community.  But I cannot understand making excuses or dismissing cutting or humiliating remarks made by a judge during court proceedings.

The ruling discusses the comments made in an adoption procedure as taken from a tape of the proceedings:
We found that Judge Govendo’s tone in these proceedings was mean, condescending, and angry. We listened to Judge Govendo berate would be adoptive parents on the basis that they were motivated to adopt the children not because they loved them, but instead because they wished to bring more Filipinos into the Commonwealth. Judge Govendo attacked the petitioners and their motivations. He stated that it was petitioners’ intent in these adoptions to circumvent Commonwealth law, and that he would not stand for such tactics.
Most people would find those comments offensive. What would happen if an attorney made such comments in a courtroom? Would he or she be sanctioned? The Saipan Tribune summarized some of the Supreme Court ruling:
In imposing sanctions, the justices said Govendo violated many of the judicial canons and rules with his statements, and as a result, “he has lowered the bar with respect to the judiciary's reputation in the eyes of the people of the Commonwealth.”

“No doubt the parties before him during these proceedings, two of which were petitioners for adoption, likely felt prejudiced, and likely left the courthouse with a feeling that the court did not dispense impartial justice,” they said.

“These statements essentially amount to angry tirades. The adoption comments are even more shocking as he attacked innocent and valued members of our community, and accused them of wishing to adopt all Filipinos and ruin the Commonwealth in the process,” the justices said.

The justices noted that while Castillo was a serially abusive husband, the adoption petitioners were law-abiding members of the community.

The justices said Govendo certainly had the right to question the petitioners to determine that the adoptions were legal, but it is beyond the pale of acceptable judicial conduct to accuse would be parents of inappropriate motives just because they wanted to adopt Filipino children.

“No party or lawyer can tell a judge on the bench to be quiet, so when Judge Govendo decided to berate the people before him, there was nothing they could do other than be publicly humiliated,” the justices said.

Therefore, the justices said, the comments caused substantial harm to the judiciary as they cast disrepute on all of the judges and justices of the Commonwealth courts.
Read the ruling:


Anonymous said...

This is a good analysis. People are quick to attack the Supreme Court because Ken is a good guy, BUT he was wrong to use the courtroom as a platform to express his frustration or anger. It was wrong to attack a criminal, the parents or family of a criminal, the parents wanting to adopt, and the CNMI society as a whole. It demeans the court and breaks public trust. He's still a good guy who made some professionals missteps.

Anonymous said...

This was a good ruling. The comments he made were terrible. And not the "adios muchacho". I'm sure he meant nothing by that.

Anonymous said...

His comments on the adoptions are exactly what many are aware of.
He stated out loud what many are thinking.
Much of these adoptions are for a reason other than what is presented.
I am not saying all of them.
But I and so many others have been approached and even offered big bucks to adopt children from Asia.

Almost every person that marries a foreigner is ask/told to adopt a niece, grandchild etc. by the spouse or a relative by marriage.

I do think that this Judge should have toned it down a little in the court room addressing the adoptive parents, maybe the Judge knew something that was not made known to the public pertaining to these people, but if this was a local Judge accused of the same things, nothing would have happened except a letter of reprimand (if that)
If I was him, I would take retirement and move on to a place that is not so racially prejudice and self serving.
He could make more money, be appreciated and be happier.

On the other hand if he decides to stay, I assume he will be assigned to the criminal court, He may well be able to make a difference and get some of these felons, and sexual predators off the street with some meaningful sentences that fit the crime.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 7:36

You have some good points, but I question this statement, "Almost every person that marries a foreigner is ask/told to adopt a niece, grandchild etc. by the spouse or a relative by marriage."

I don't think this is true based on my experience and that of other spouses I know who actually are married to foreigners. Maybe some, but certainly not "almost every" as you stated. Even if it is true, that married couples choose to adopt foreign children of relatives, I see no problem if they can provide a loving home and all parties are happy with the decision.

Anonymous said...

And blacks can jump higher, and koreans drive terrible, and chinese are stinky, and jewish are greedy. What nonsense. His statements were stereotyping an ethnic group and racist and have no place in court.