Buffalo attorney appointed to supreme court
Micronesia in the South Pacific is a long way from Buffalo, Minnesota, nearly 6400 miles and 38 hours in the air. But that is where Buffalo attorney Richard Hermes is going after receiving a life-time appointment to the Supreme Court of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).
There, Hermes will be based in the state of Yap, one of the four states in FSM.
First Visit to Micronesia
Hermes was born in Buffalo, but raised in the Twin Cities. He has been living in Buffalo for 36 years and has been practicing law in Buffalo for the past 28 years. Out of his office on Central Avenue near downtown Buffalo, Hermes only does criminal defense work, but also works part-time as a public defender.
The Hermes family enjoys diving. They had been diving in Cozumel and Hawaii.
“I was looking for a new vacation spot that offered dive sites,” said Hermes. “While looking, I found diving in FSM, but also a call for volunteer legal work.”
In late 2003 and early 2004, Hermes volunteered to train FSM lawyers on how to prosecute cases and on courtroom techniques. He worked in the attorney general’s office in the state of Kosrae.
After those three months, Hermes kept in contact with the leaders of the justice branch of the FSM government.
In 2006, Hermes returned to Micronesia with his family to serve for two years as second-in-command to the chief public defender for the state of Yap. In FSM the chief public defender is a cabinet position. Hermes also trained lawyers in public defense.
Hermes and his wife Cynthia and four of their seven youngest children, Jillian, Chuck, Tony, and Christian lived in Colonia, Yap.
“It was a great experience for the kids, for our family,” said Hermes. “The different cultures of each of the four states expanded our horizons about the world. The kids think fondly of their two years there.”
While there, sons Chuck and Tony completed their Eagle Scout projects. Chuck cleaned a tributary to improve irrigation, and Tony refurbished an old building into a sports complex and weight room. Their work was verified by the Boy Scouts Aloha Council, after a meeting in Guam.
The family returned to Buffalo after the two-year contract was complete so that their twins could complete their senior year and graduate from Buffalo High School.
The Federated States of Micronesia consists of 607 small islands in the Western Pacific just above the Equator. The estimated population of the entire country is about 105,000, about two-thirds the population of all of Wright County.
The country’s land area is only about 270 square miles, but the islands are spread apart, covering more than one million square miles. The country spans 1700 miles from west to east.
The country has a history that dates back several thousand years, but more recently, in 1920, the area came under the control of Japan after World War I. During World War II, much of the country’s infrastructure and prosperity was destroyed by bombing as a significant portion of the Japanese naval fleet was based in Truk (now Chuuk) Lagoon.
In 1947, the United Nations created the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that included the areas of Micronesia, and the United States became the trustee.
In 1978, following a constitutional convention, the Federated States of Micronesia became an independent country, gaining a seat at the United Nations in 1991.
In 1986, FSM signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The United States provides defense, and FSM citizens may immigrate to and be employed in the United States and may join the U. S. military.
English is the official language.
The new country was divided into four states, from west to east, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae.
“Each of those states,” said Hermes, “has a different culture. On Yap, for example, both traditional and western clothing will be seen. Yap is more into the old culture, very family-oriented, with global family raising in the villages.”
Like in the United States, each state has its own state constitution under the national constitution.
The FSM government, like the United States, has three branches. The Congress is a single house with 14 senators. Each state has own senator elected for four years. Ten more senators are apportioned by population and are elected for two years.
Congress elects the president and vice-president from among the four-year senators with the two now vacant seats filled by special elections.
The judicial branch is headed by the four-member Supreme Court who sit in the trial and appellate divisions.
Unlike the United States, there is a fourth branch in the constitution. Judges always have to consider the traditions of the islands and factor in the village elders and the unwritten laws and traditions.
Work as a Judge
Hermes’ appointment to the FSM Supreme Court is for life. He and Cynthia will be living on Yap permanently. They, however, will not be able to buy a home or land.
To keep the islands natural and pristine, the country does not allow non-natives to own land or become citizens. There is no naturalization process.
Hermes was nominated and then confirmed following a lengthy application process that included the usual criminal background check, certificate of good standing with the law profession, letters of recommendation, and a hearing with the senators.
Said Hermes, “I also had a lot of support from FSM Supreme Court Chief Justice Dennis Yamasa.”
“Crime there is just like crime here,” said Hermes, “but because of so many islands surrounded by the sea, there is more work with maritime law and control of the seas.”
Added Hermes, “This will be a challenge for me. After 28 years representing clients, I will no longer be advocating on behalf of clients.”
Some of Hermes’ work will be with white-collar government crime, the misuse government funds. There will also be business litigation on defaulted loans.
Hermes will be presiding over trials, hearing appeals, writing opinions, and making legal decisions.
Hermes said that he will be traveling to other islands “quite a bit.”
That may sound difficult but many of the islands have maintained the landing strips built during World War II.
“There is a commuter airline,” explained Hermes. “Even the missionaries fly to the islands for their work.”
“All states have jails,” said Hermes, “but they are small and rundown. They are greatly over-crowded, and the families have to bring food for the prisoners.”
In his work, Hermes said that he must remember that he is a guest in the culture of the islands.
“As a judge, I must factor in and honor the culture, as well as, the village elders,” said Hermes.
“Written law may say one thing, and tradition another.”
Making the Move
“My family,” said Hermes, “is excited for me. We all realize what a huge honor this is. Cynthia is excited, too, looking forward to this great adventure.
“We have met many wonderful people, and the people are looking forward to our return. They are very welcoming, and we welcome the opportunity!”