August 23, 2012
Ninth Circuit "Interprets" Constitution of Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
In a brief opinion, a panel of the Ninth Circuit interpreted the Constitution of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to provide no property interest in continued employment necessary for a due process claim by a Special Assistant to the Governor. More precisely, the Ninth Circuit deferred to the opinion of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, having certified the questions to the Supreme Court and attaching the court's opinion as an appendix to its own.
The Commonwealth Constitution, Article III, section 22, establishes an "Office of Special Assistant to the Governor for Women's Affairs," and provides that the "governor shall appoint a person, who is qualified by virtue of education and experience, to be the special assistant" and the "special assistant may be removed only for cause."
In Peter-Palican v. Government of Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Ms. Peter-Palican argued that the new governor's termination of her as Special Assistant to the Governor for Women's Affairs violated her due process rights.
The Ninth Circuit held that the "removal for cause" did not extend beyond the term of the governor who appointed her, adopting the Commonwealth's Supreme Court decision. Thus, Ms. Peter-Palican did not have the requisite property interest as a threshold for a due process inquiry.
The Ninth Circuit's determination that the Commonwealth Supreme Court is the final arbiter of its constitution comports with general federalism principles, although the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands is not a state. Indeed, its status is rather unique, governed by the "Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America," approved by Congress, and signed by President Ford in 1976. The Covenant exempts specific portions of the Constitution as well as specific federal laws (importantly, immigration and minimum wage laws) unless adopted by the Commonwealth.
The "removal for cause" provision in a constitution would seem to provide some protection from changing elected officials such as governors. Perhaps if the position were not a "special assistant to the governor" the Commonwealth Supreme Court - - - and the Ninth Circuit - - - would have viewed the matter differently.
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