Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Lawyering

Since starting this blog, we’ve written about many aspects of our life in Yap, on everything from the weather, to trips to the local grocery store. However, aside from the last post, we previously hadn’t discussed one of the main reasons we’re here in the first place; namely, for work. [Note: Truth be told, work is the main reason Mike is here. Miranda just got dragged along for the ride.]

Maybe it’s just that this Island, with all its natural beauty and uniqueness, provides more interesting topics to discuss than the daily grind of employment. More likely though, after a long day, writing a work-related entry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, as it may be of interest to some, here it goes.

Mike (who is writing this post) works as an Assistant Attorney General for Yap State. I’m one of only a handful of lawyers in the entire country, brought over from the U.S. because of the severe lack of locally available attorneys. While the FSM became an independent nation in 1986, the country had been a Trust Territory of the US Government since 1947. As a result of those decades of direct American control, the government and legal framework here is modeled closely on what is found in the United States. To say the least, this makes for a straightforward adjustment to practicing under Yap State or FSM law.

One major difference from the US is that the legal system here operates in conjunction with Yapese traditional and customary views of justice. These customs and traditions have been handed down from generation to generation over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and are specifically given consideration in the State and National Constitutions. The most evident of these customs is the practice of the ‘traditional apology’ or ‘bayul’. While the specific details of this custom are still not entirely clear to me, generally if someone offends someone else (by say… getting drunk and hitting their neighbor over the head with a blunt object), they must go through a formal apology for the act which can include payment of compensation and other methods of punishment. The closest Western analogy would be a form of mediation where the parties themselves come up with a plan to compensate a victim. While the traditional justice process happens concurrently with, but separately from, any legal action, judges will usually ask whether a traditional apology has been offered and accepted as part of the sentencing process. As stated in a recently published civics handbook for high school students, the purpose of the traditional apology process is to “maintain respect, peace, and harmony within the village.”

In a nutshell, the job of Asst. AG involves providing legal advice to various State agencies and the executive branch of government, representing the State anytime they are sued, drafting proposed legislation, and serving as prosecutor in criminal matters. Included in the day-to-day tasks are criminal prosecutions and drafting or reviewing contracts of every size and kind. Just to name a few, the State generates massive amounts of employment contracts, construction contracts, procurement contracts, and services contracts. Most of these usually wind up in Mike’s In-Box on a daily basis. Since a vast majority of the financing for these purchases comes in the form of subsidies provided by the U.S., there are not only compliance requirements under Yap State law, but also controls by the U.S. to ensure their money is being spent wisely and for the greatest benefit. It’s the job of the Office of the Attorney General to make certain that all the requirements are met.

Even for a small office, and a comparatively small government, there is a surprising amount of work to be done. Just this year, many interesting legal issues have arisen. To go into detail would likely result in a book-length blog post, and due to confidentiality, the sensitive nature of the work, and that this blog may be viewed by any number of unknown readers, only generalities will be discussed.

One of the more critical problems facing the FSM is the increasing number of incidents of illegal fishing. You’d be surprised to know that these days; a majority of the worlds’ tuna population comes from the FSM. Unlike many nearby industrial nations who have exhausted the tuna stocks in their own waters, Micronesia has historically been protective of their limited natural resources. This has resulted in the FSM being one of the last refuges on the planet for tuna fish. Since scarcity has driven up prices, tuna fishing has become a very profitable enterprise. Some foreign fishing organizations, instead of bothering with the relatively simple and inexpensive requirements for obtaining a valid fishing license, reason that it’s a much better plan to simply get in your boat, and fill your holds with as much fish as possible from the tuna-clogged expanses of FSM waters. Even though the available resources for monitoring these illegal fishing operations are minimal, and catching a boat in the act is difficult, every year there seem to be at least a couple of culprits that are caught red-handed. Working in conjunction with the national government, each State is tasked with prosecution of illegal fishing vessel apprehended within its waters, which can result in the imposition of fines and penalties as well as forfeiture of the offending vessels and their catch.

Another common issue results from the explosive combination of one part boredom with three parts alcohol. Often times, the increase in criminal cases following a weekend after a government pay-day is very noticeable. Many cases involve people simply getting too drunk and making poor choices, just like anywhere else. It’s part of the job of the AG’s office to make sure there are consequences as a result of those choices, with the hope of reducing future incidents.

To say the least, each day brings its own challenges and rewards. The work is certainly never dull, and offers the opportunity to practice in a variety of different areas. The questions that arise always unique and require solutions that are not only legally enforceable but also tailored to the circumstances and limitations of a life on a fairly remote tropical island.

One of the real benefits of the job is the ability to see the effect of your work in everyday life. Back home, it could take many months if not years for a new law or modification of an existing law to navigate through the many-layered bureaucracy of State government. Here, the process is relatively short, even taking into account the slower than usual ‘island time’ pace of things. Some legislation is put into effect within days or week of being signed into law. Since the A.G.’s office is involved with enforcement of those laws, it’s exciting to be involved in a process that has such a direct impact on peoples’ lives, hopefully for the better.

To say the least, it’s been a unique opportunity and a privilege to be able to work here, and one I’m grateful for on a daily basis. Hopefully, in some small way, my work here can be a ‘thank you’ to the people and the State for their continuing kindness and hospitality during our time here.

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