Journal Staff

Joaquin C. Arriola is shown in the conference room of Arriola Law Firm in Hagåtña on Jan. 27.
Photo by Maureen N. Maratita

Joaquin C. Arriola has firm opinions on everything from the legal profession to a part-time legislature.

But after 67 years of a career that has seen him build a law practice, serve in the Guam Legislature and more — he has earned the right to appraise the island’s progress and future directions.

At 95, Arriola now concentrates mainly on managing family assets, he said. He is reticent about the accolades that have come to him through the years and recently on his retirement, but recognizes that the island wants to acknowledge its community leadership and contributors to its progress.

Due to the war years in Guam — which began when he was in 9th grade, Arriola graduated from George Washington High School in 1946 after a year and a half of what he said was “so-called high school.” Resources were scant. “The Reader’s Digest — that was our course for literature.”

The ensuing education he described as “his biggest accomplishment.” After graduating in 1950 from St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minn., he attended the University of Minnesota Law School, also in Minneapolis, graduating in 1953. “I started law school with 300 people; 97 graduated.

“When I graduated college, I didn’t know what to do.” An early student experience in teaching did not end well. “I got fired within one week because I permitted my [second grade] students to sing ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama.’”

The law beckoned. Returning to Guam in September of that year and admitted to the district court, Arriola began to build his practice for more than a year before becoming a senator. Today it does business as Arriola Law Firm.

“There was hardly anybody here with a college degree at the time,” he said. You could count the number of attorneys on island “on ten fingers,” he said. “All of us had cases and things to do.”

Due to the island’s lockdown status until 1962 when President John F. Kennedy lifted the World War II security clearance requirement for travel to and from Guam, Arriola said the population was small.

“There weren’t many people here on Guam until the early 70s when they really started coming in,” he said.

But there was a legal framework and plenty of work. “We had the statutes — we had criminal statutes after California statutes, we had statutes for civil claims, we had the Superior Court — then known as the Island Court, we had the U.S. District Court — so criminal cases, land cases, divorces, probate cases, you name it — just like today.”

However, since there were not many lawyers, he said, “I just handled everything.”

His work had elements that were not gratifying. “I handled a lot of divorce cases,” he said. “In a divorce case, the worst of a human being comes out. … It is the most miserable time of anybody’s life.”

 On the plus side, Arriola said attorneys were able to serve the fledgling business community. “All of us had things to do — form organizations, help out businesses, going to court defending criminal cases, land cases and a lot of eminent domain cases.”

The eminent domain cases were a sign of the times — negotiating with the U.S. government on land appropriation. “I handled more condemnation cases than all the other lawyers combined,” Arriola said. These included land for Naval Air Station and Route 1, he said.

The eminent domain cases covered the island and Arriola  negotiated compensation, he said. 

“They were offering peanuts to the people — the owners.” But negotiations reaped rewards, he said. “We managed to get a little bit more than what the government offered at the time — sometimes twice as much, sometimes three times as much, because they were offering so little. …The basis for compensation is reasonable market value … but there were no [comparable] sales because Guam was in lockdown, because the Navy controlled it, even though there was a civilian government.”

Arriola does not see independence or statehood in Guam’s future, due to its dependence on the U.S. “The Constitution is not applicable to Guam unless Congress decides what area of the Constitution is applicable. It is not likely to change.”

A change in political status will not occur, based on past events, he said. “Congress has been very reluctant to grant the people of Guam some freedom.”

Acquiring the right to citizenship was hard, he said. “We sent a delegate to Washington begging — all we wanted was citizenship. The then-assistant secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, denied it and it took years after the Organic Act before we got the governorship.”

Unlike the Northern Mariana Islands or the Congress of Micronesia, he said, “We were different. The Chamorros at that time wanted American citizenship so desperately they would give up a lot of things to obtain that.”

The most likely of Guam’s desires to happen is a voting delegate, he said and possibly votes for its residents.

“Right now, a delegate is a lobbyist. Sure, they can vote in Committee, but what could count, or should count is a vote in the body itself. That would probably be the most likely and the ultimate for the island of Guam — and its residents.”

The Organic Act gives Congress the right to annul any law passed by the Guam Legislature within one year. “The Congress is the sole arbiter of the island of Guam,” he said, as well as of the Virgin Islands.

Guam may get the right for residents to receive supplemental Social Security Income for disabled residents, he said. “That won’t be difficult at all.”

 The U.S. framework in general is positive, he said. “It’s a good system; it’s a better system [now] than before the war and of course a much better system than during the war.”

Arriola does not approve of electing an attorney general or a public auditor and said the governor should appoint them. “Just go out and pick the best people available.”  He would prefer a simplified system. “There are too many boards and commissions,” he said. “When I was serving in the legislature I don’t believe there was a single independent commission or board.”

While recognizing the island has changed and is sophisticated and up to date, Arriola said foresight and facility management has been a problem. “The prison, education, the hospital — we didn’t plan for it.”

Of the eight Arriola children, two are part of the firm — Anita Arriola and Joaquin C. “Jay” Arriola Jr. Anita Arriola’s area is commercial law and Jay Arriola practices in the area of criminal law, divorce and other litigation. Arriola said he did not steer them towards the legal profession. “I encouraged them to attend the best colleges available,” he said, saying the same held true of all his children.

“I had a big practice at the time,” he said. “They joined the firm and started like everybody else.”

The practice’s work was formative for the island.

“I organized the Bank of Guam; I had been a member of the board of BankPacific for many, many years. I represented many insurance companies — that would be on the civil side,” Arriola said.

Investors also came to the island from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, he said. “They were coming in droves and picking up land — whatever was available.” Local families also accrued land assets.

The law is not a simple field, Arriola said.

“For some people it’s not an easy profession. That’s why a lot of attorney are heavy drinkers.” Criminal trial work is particularly arduous, he said.

“But when you enter it, there’s a lot of satisfaction — helping people out.” Despite criticism that fees are high, he said attorneys perform a lot of pro bono work. “That is one of my many satisfactions — helping people who cannot afford legal fees.” In the early days, such clients would bring fruit. “I would tell them you don’t have to do that.” Arriola said the amount of pro bono work he did contributed to his achieving the highest number of votes as senator several times.

Arriola’s professional and community service appointments have been broad and include president of the Guam Bar Association, chairman of the board of regents of the College of Guam, chairman of the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority and chairman of the Territorial Planning Commission.

He also served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Guam, but said he did not care for that. “I preferred arguing before them.”

Arriola was legislative counsel to the 5th, 6th and 7th Guam legislature. “We had the same building.” The Guam Congress building housed the legislature, the district court and the island court, he said. “But we managed to get together and use the facility without any problem at all.”

The Arriola name became synonymous with politics as well as the legal profession, not least because Arriola’s wife — the late Elizabeth P. Arriola was also elected senator.

Entering in 1956, Arriola served in four legislatures — the third and fourth and the 9th and 10 legislatures. He was speaker of the last two and his selection in the 9th Guam Legislature was unanimous. “That doesn’t happen often in anyone’s life,” he said. “I really appreciated that and I was honored.”

His opponent for the speakership was the late Ricardo J. Bordallo. “We were political enemies, but we were very good friends,” Arriola said. “He was Jay’s [Arriola] godfather, but we were opposite sides of the fence in the political arena.”

He may have won the speakership, but Arriola said of Bordallo, “He beat me as governor in the Democratic primary.” Arriola ran unsuccessfully for the gubernatorial slot in 1974.

Important measures that passed during his years in the legislature were “some amendments to the Organic Act — with greater freedom for the Chamorros on Guam — for example, the governorship.” The governors in those early years were civilian, but appointed by the president, though they went through a confirmation process. “Of course, there was also legislation, but not much really — because we were a part-time legislature,” Arriola said.

That part-time legislature of 21 senators met for 30 days in January and 30 days in June. Senators were paid $600 for the year.

The legislature’s most important job is to set the budget, he said. “That was a big item in my days. None of these hearings — calling in government employees to be heard before a committee. … Let them do their job.”

Arriola is skeptical of the present effort to return the legislature to part-time status, though he’s in favor of it.

“They talk about it, but I don’t think they’ll ever pass it.” Arriola says it’s a matter of practicality. “Those guys are not going to go for part-time. It’s like you’re giving up your salary. That won’t happen.” mbj