Women and Justice: Court: Court of Appeals Ninth District

Domestic Case Law

United States v. Chang Da Liu, 538 F. 3d 1078 (9th Cir. 2008) Court of Appeals Ninth District (2008)

Sexual violence and rape, Trafficking in persons

Ming Yan Zheng and her husband Chang Da Liu opened a brothel in Saipan, the capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (“CMNI”). They recruited employees in China by advertising for positions as waitresses, nightclub performers and service workers. The materials promised wages of between $3,000 and $4,000 and required applicants to pay a $6,000 processing fee. Upon their arrival to CMNI, the employees were forced into prostitution. Six of the victims reported the situation to the FBI which resulted in Zheng and Liu’s convictions for conspiracy, sex trafficking, foreign transportation for prostitution and transportation of persons in execution of fraud. On appeal, Zheng challenged her conviction on several grounds, inter alia, that the court lacked jurisdiction to prosecute her. Zheng argued that the Federal Government lacked authority to prosecute her because Section 501 of the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America (“the Covenant”) limited the application of the criminal statutes under which she was convicted in the CMNI. According to Zheng, Section 501provides an exhaustive list of the provisions of the U.S. Constitution which apply to the CMNI. As such, she could not be prosecuted under the criminal statutes used to prosecute her because they were enacted under the commerce clause and that territorial clause, which provisions are not listed in Section 501 of the Covenant. The Court found Zheng’s argument to be lacking because Section 501 sets forth the Constitutional provisions which apply in the CNMI as if it were a state. By contrast, the commerce clause and the territorial clause apply to Congress and regulate its ability to enact legislation applicable to the CMNI. As such, the Court held that Congress had authority to legislate over the CMNI, and that the court had jurisdiction over Zheng. The Court pointed out that although Congress has authority to legislate over the CMNI, the Covenant does limit Congress’s powers with respect to legislation enacted after the Covenant’s effective date. For such legislation, the Court must balance the federal interest served by the legislation against the degree of intrusion into the CMNI’s local affairs. However, the Court found that the federal interest in combating international sex trafficking through the U.S. territories outweighs the intrusion into the CMNI’s local affairs.