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GEC reviewing legal opinion from Legislature's counsel

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by Ken Quintanilla

Guam - It's been two weeks since Bill 215 lapsed into law but it remains to be seen whether voters will in fact be able to decide in this year's general election whether medicinal marijuana should be legalized. And while the GEC's legal counsel had deemed Bill 215 inorganic, the Guam Legislature has since come forth with its legal opinion saying otherwise.

Days before it lapsed into law, Guam Election Commission legal counsel Jeff Cook issued his legal opinion on Bill 215. "It's my advice to the Commission that there appears to be a problem with the process," he explained.

Cook considered action by the Guam Legislature inorganic and therefore it would be against the law for the GEC to proceed with the measure. During Thursday's GEC regular meeting, the Commission not only addressed counsel's opinion for the first time but were now in receipt of two new legal opinions submitted by Bill 215's author, Senator Tina Muna Barnes. The opinions were penned by the Legislature's minority's legal counsel James Espaldon and Barnes' attorney Julian Aguon. The opinions disagree with Cook's opinion that Bill 215 is inorganic.

He said, "And so basically what the Legislature is saying is we aren't passing the law, we're passing a direction to the Commission to put the issue in front of the voters to see if the voters want to make it a law which basically is what an initiative process is in the Organic Act, in my opinion, does not seem to give the legislature the authority to do that."

Aguon opines there's sufficient cause to believe that nothing in the Organic Act bars the Legislature from submitting questions to the people via a legislative submission. Espaldon believes the legislative submission for a referendum is not in derogation of the Organic Act.

While some commissioners raised whether its for the GEC to even question the Legislature and the Executive Branch, cook noted that if the Commission believes its ministerial duties are in violation of the law, it wouldn't be wise to sit back and do nothing. "Its better, if it's a process issue, to find out at the beginning whether the process is right or wrong then possibly some legal attack down the road," he said.

And he initially advised the GEC to get direction from the court by seeking declaratory relief, but on Thursday Cook suggested instead that the Legislature take it to the court as they along with the governor only have the authority to do so. "But once again we have two opinions from two other attorneys that were presented to the Commission today from the Legislature and they disagree and that's to me in a way seems to say really we should have the courts decide what's right," he shared.

Commissioner Martha Ruth made a motion to adopt legal counsel's opinion and suggest the Legislature take the matter to the court. The vote ended in a tie. Cook along with those who voted against the measure stated they wanted more time to review the opposing legal opinions as they were only received just hours before the meeting. "But based on my initial review, I don't see anything there that would is necessarily going to make me change my position and my proposal and advice to the Commission," said Cook.

KUAM has learned that the majority legal counsel Therese Terlaje also prepared a legal opinion, however it was not presented to the board last night. Barnes's office says Terlaje's opinion was in line with Espaldon and Aguon's but it was an internal decision not to submit it to the GEC. The GEC tabled the matter and will discuss it again when it reconvenes next Thursday March 6 at 5:32pm. 

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