The Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America defines the unique relationship between the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States, recognizing U.S. sovereignty but limiting, in some respects, applicability of federal law. The Commonwealth accordingly enjoys a greater degree of autonomy than most U.S. territories. The Covenant is codified at 48 U.S.C. § 1801 note, reprinted in the Northern Mariana Islands Commonwealth Code (with case annotations) and is also sold in pamphlet format by the Commonwealth Law Revision Commission.
The Covenant contains several provisions concerning Commonwealth law and governance, including provisions (Sections 201 and 203) obligating the people of the Northern Mariana Islands to adopt a Commonwealth Constitution providing for a republican form of government and containing a bill of rights. Another significant Covenant provision (Section 805) requires the Commonwealth government to restrict acquisition of long-term interests in land to persons of Northern Mariana Islands descent.
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The Covenant was negotiated over the course of twenty-seven months (December 1972 to February 1975) by the Marianas Political Status Commission, made up of representatives of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a delegation representing the United States. The proposed Covenant was signed by negotiators on February 15, 1975, and unanimously approved by the legislature of the Mariana Islands District of the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands on February 17, 1975.
On June 17, 1975, the Covenant was submitted to Northern Mariana Islands voters in a plebiscite. At the time, ninety-five percent of eligible persons had registered to vote. Of the ninety-five percent of all registered voters who cast ballots in the plebiscite, 78.8 percent voted to approve the Covenant.
The Covenant was subsequently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on July 21, 1975, and by the U.S. Senate on February 24, 1976. On March 24, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-241 (90 Stat. 263), enacting the Covenant. Some provisions became effective on that date, pursuant to Covenant Section 1003(a). Remaining provisions became effective on January 9, 1978, and November 4, 1986, the dates specified in Presidential proclamations issued pursuant to Covenant Section 1003(b)-(c). On the latter date, qualified residents of the Northern Mariana Islands became U.S. citizens.
Covenant Section 105 provides that many provisions of the Covenant may be modified only with the joint consent of the U.S. and Commonwealth governments. Other provisions may be unilaterally amended by the U.S. government; as of November 1997, only one such amendment has been enacted--Public Law 98-213, § 9 (97 Stat. 1461), a 1983 measure revising Covenant Section 606(b), concerning Social Security taxes and benefits.