Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Guam Can’t Duck Suit Over Native Land Grab

(CN) - Ancestral landowners in Guam who claim they were never fully compensated for property confiscated during World War II will have their day in court, a federal judge has ruled.

Guam is an unincorporated U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean, and is the largest of the Marianas Islands. The Japanese occupied the area before the United States regained control of the islands during World War II.

The U.S. Navy condemned and converted large sections of the island into military bases where the Antonio Won Pat International Airport now sits. The land the airport occupies was appraised at $51.2 million in 2000, making it some of the most valuable property in Guam, according to lead plaintiff Vicente Palacios Crawford.

And in 2012 alone, the Airport Authority reported it received $66.5 million in revenues, $52.5 million from airport operating income, Crawford says in his federal class action . He believes that rather than making money on rent, the Guamanian government should either return the properties to their rightful ancestral owners or properly compensate them.

Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo and the Guam Ancestral Homelands Commission chair Anita Orlino moved to dismiss the class action, arguing that the matter lies outside Federal Court jurisdiction due to Guam's sovereign immunity from contract and unjust enrichment claims and that Crawford's ancestor had already been compensated for his property.

U.S. District Chief Judge Frances M. Tydingco-Gatewood rejected both arguments from the bench and in a written ruling issued March 31. As for Guam's sovereign immunity, Tydingco-Gatewood found that the Ancestral Homelands Commission's process allows for judicial involvement when disputes over land cannot be resolved in another way - thus waiving sovereign immunity in this instance.

The judge also found that Crawford has gone as far as he can to exhaust the administrative remedies regarding his civil rights claims, since the commission has never established the necessary rules to make payments for land that has been taken.

And Tydingco-Gatewood rejected Guam's argument that because Crawford's mother had already received payment for the parcel - $8,340 in 1951 by the Naval Government of Guam, and an additional $71,227.22 through a federal claims procedure in 1993 - the issue has already been litigated and resolved.

Later court cases found that ancestral landowners that received payments were paid less than market value. Furthermore, Guamanian law specifically "preserves the rights of landowners to sue for compensation in exchange for their ancestral claim being extinguished," Tydingco-Gatewood wrote in rejecting both the res judicata and statute of limitations arguments.

The issue of payments for ancestral land takings has been an ongoing issue on Guam.

Despite several legislative efforts and the creation of the Tinyan Trust "to set aside all net income derived from Tinyan into a trust for the benefit of the original owners of the property," various lawsuits and court injunctions have prevented the disbursement of any money-except $470,000 to the Guam Economic Development Authority for administering the trust from October 2001-May 2014.

In a previous unsuccessful motion opposing class certification, Attorney General David Highsmith suggested plaintiff Crawford should wait patiently for his share of the trust, and called his suit for a portion of Airport revenues "pie in the sky."

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