Peter-Palican v. Northern Mariana Islands

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Rights § 1983
  • Date Filed: 08-22-2012
  • Case #: 10-17153
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Trott for the Court; Circuit Judges Goodwin and Murguia
  • Full Text Opinion

The Special Assistant to the Governor of Women’s Affairs possesses a protected property interest in continued employment only during the term of the appointing governor under Article III, section 2 of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Constitution. Thus, the Special Assistant has no due process claim against the Commonwealth when she is terminated without cause under a new governor.

In 2002, then-Governor Juan Babuata of the Northern Mariana Islands appointed Emerenciana Peter-Palican as Special Assistant to the Governor for Women’s Affairs. In 2005, Governor Benigno R. Fitial won the gubernatorial election, defeating Babuata. Peter-Palican was then terminated upon the change in administration. Subsequently, Peter-Palican brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Governor Fitial (collectively, “the Commonwealth”), alleging that Article III, section 22 of the Commonwealth Constitution (providing that “[t]he special assistant may be removed only for cause”) prohibited her termination without cause “even beyond the term of the appointing governor.” The district court agreed, holding that Peter-Palican possessed a protected property interest in continued employment beyond former Governor Babuata’s term in office. Therefore, the district court determined that Peter-Palican’s termination violated the Due Process Clause. The district court awarded Peter-Palican $216,000 in damages after implying a private right of action for violating section 22. The Commonwealth appealed and the Ninth Circuit certified questions to the Commonwealth Supreme Court. The dispositive issue before the Commonwealth Supreme Court was whether section 22 means that the Special Assistant (1) “may never be removed from that position without cause-- even beyond the term of the appointing governor;” or (2) “is protected against termination without cause only during the term of the appointing governor.” The Commonwealth Supreme Court held that the former interpretation was correct. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit adopted the Commonwealth Supreme Court’s conclusions. The Court therefore held that Peter-Palican’s due process challenge failed, because her property interest in continued employment ceased to exist after the new governor assumed office. Accordingly, the district court’s imposition of an implied constitutional tort claim also failed. VACATED and REMANDED.

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