Ninth Circuit Sides With Guam in Airport Compensation Case

(CN) – On December 10, 1941, three days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces laid siege to the U.S. territory of Guam in the South Pacific, took the island by force and established a sizeable garrison. Nine months later in early August 1942, the United States retook the island so crucial to the Allied strategy in the Pacific Campaign against the Japanese.

The A. B. Won Pat International Airport in Guam. (Photo credit: Mr.agf671)

In the immediate aftermath of establishing control of the island, the United States turned the entire island into a base of operations, building five large airbases and naval stations across the 210-square mile island.

While the island played a pivotal role in the eventual triumph of the Allied Forces over Japan, many natives of the island of Guam were pushed off their ancestral lands without receiving compensation.

One such Guamanian was Josefina Palacios Crawford, who sued multiple times to receive a sum of $71,000 for land in the Tiyan region where her ancestors had lived on for generations before the U.S. military took it for use as an airport.

In 1994, Congress ordered the land in the Tiyan region be transferred back to the territorial government of Guam, on the condition the government would use the land for public benefit.

Soon after, Guam built the Anton B. Wot International Airport at the site. In 2000, the land was appraised at $51.2 million making it one of the most valuable tracts in all of Guam.

Vincent Palacios Crawford, the son of Josefina, said his family was entitled to a portion of the valuable land. He noted the Guam International Airport Authority raked in considerable profits not only from operations related to the airport, but rental income as well: In 2012, the airport authority earned about $66 million.

Meanwhile, Guam established a task force in 2014 to determine how best to compensate ancestral landowners of the disputed property. Governor Eddie Baza Calvo said the territory would establish a $3.2 million fund for landowners, but no money has been distributed to date.

Crawford said his land should either be returned to him or he should be properly compensated, and he filed suit in 2015.

A federal judge found in favor of Guam on summary judgment in September 2016, holding that Crawford’s ancestral property right was not the same thing as a constitutionally protected property right.

Crawford appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the judge’s ruling Friday.

“While the Guam Legislature has clearly established a process to receive, evaluate, and compensate ancestral property right claims, the Legislature did not design the process to be sufficiently definite to transform plaintiff’s expectation into a property right entitled to due process protection,” wrote U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi wrote for the panel, which included U.S. Chief Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas and U.S. Circuit Judge Susan Graber. Kobayashi sat by designation from the District of Hawaii.

While Crawford argued Guam had violated the Equal Protection Clause by giving land that was no longer in use back to the ancestral owners but failing to compensate people who had ancestral rights to land that was currently in use, the panel disagreed.

Kobayashi said Guam may have bungled how it’s handled those whose land is being used – like Crawford’s – and those whose land is not in use, but it has a plan and the Constitution “does not require simultaneous resolution.”

A phone call to Scott M. Grzenczyk, who argued the case on behalf of Crawford, was not returned as of press time.  

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