Cite as Palsis vs. State, Kosrae St. (1991)

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Before Edward C. King
Kosrae State Associate Justice
Kosrae State
Argued: September 19, 1991
Decided: October 4, 1991

For the Appellant:      Delson Ehmes  
                                    Micronesian Legal Services Corp.  
                                    P.O. Box 38
                                    Kosrae, FM  96944  

For the Appellee:      Dow Patten  
                                    Attorney at Law  
                                    P.O. Box J  
                                    Kosrae, FM 96944

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EDWARD C. KING, Associate Justice*
     On November 4, 1988, Alik K. Palsis, then a bailiff working for the Kosrae State Court, participated in what has become known as the Tafunsak Riot.

     As a result of his conduct, Mr. Palsis was charged with, and on March 16, 1989, he pleaded guilty to, a misdemeanor, obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to jail for one day, with the rest of his one-year sentence suspended subject to conditions of probation.
     On April 6, 1989, then Chief Justice Harry Skilling of the Kosrae State Court notified Mr. Palsis by letter that, due to his conviction for obstruction of justice, he was being summarily terminated as court bailiff, effective April 10, 1989. Mr. Palsis appealed to an appeal panel convened pursuant to the Kosrae State Court Manual of Administration. That three-person panel issued its decision on June 6, 1989, upholding the termination.

     Mr. Palsis has appealed to this Court from that decision. The Court has previously decided that it does have jurisdiction to hear the appeal.

     Mr. Palsis contends that the decision of the appeals board is defective for three reasons. First, he argues that

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the panel was constituted improperly. Second, he contends that his summary dismissal violated due process. Third, he asserts that the facts do not justify his termination.

A.   The Panel Membership
     The procedure for adjudicating personnel problems in the Kosrae Court is set out in the Kosrae State Court Manual of Administration (Manual), which was promulgated by the Chief Justice pursuant to Kosrae statute.

     The Manual provides for appeals of summary dismissals in title III, sections 11(7) and 12. Section 12(1) requires that such appeals be heard by a board which consists of a "justice of the State Court and two other persons to be designated by the court." Mr. Palsis contends that this provision was violated when the Chief Justice appointed then Kosrae Director of Education, Singkitchy George, a "Justice Pro Tempore" to sit as the panel's "justice of the State Court."

     It is conceded by the State that Mr. George was not appointed justice pro tempore in the manner prescribed by K.C. 1204, which requires approval of the Kosrae Legislature. However the State maintains that appointment of a nonjudge to the panel was necessary because no other justices were available. Since it was Chief Justice Skilling's decision that was on appeal, he did not sit on the panel. Mr. Palsis does not contend that he should have done so. The only associate justice, the Honorable Joab Sigrah, had died previously and no new appointment had been made.

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     The Manual anticipates irregularities, providing that "(w]henever a void is noted in these rules and regulations, the Chief Justice shall determine the proper remedy." Manual, title I, section 3. In the circumstances of this case a void certainly existed for, without some person to act in the place designated for a "justice of the State Court," the appeal could not have been heard.

     The overriding goal of the section 12 procedures is to assure that fair hearings are conducted. There has been no contention that the appointment of a nonjudge was made to subvert that purpose. Accordingly, the Court concludes that the appointment of Singitchy George to serve as a panel member was a proper remedy for the lack of a state court justice to serve. The panel therefore was established in a manner consistent with the procedure prescribed by the Manual.

B.   Due Process
     Palsis also contends that his due process rights were violated. The primary claim is that his summary dismissal lacked due process since he was not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations. See Semes v. FSM, 4 FSM Intrm. 66 (App. 1989). This point is moot, however, since the panel recognized the violation and ordered that he be awarded back pay for the period of time between his summary termination and the date of the panel's affirmation of his termination.

     Mr. Palsis has raised other due process issues, especially objecting to the fact that the panel hearing was

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"closed" to the public. However, Mr. Palsis and his counsel were permitted to attend and participate in the hearing and the panel did accept and consider all testimony and evidence proffered by them. The Court finds that the proceedings were in accord with due process.

C.    Was the Termination Justified?
     In addition to the legal issues discussed above, Mr. Palsis contends that it was legal error for a judiciary staff person's employment to be terminated on the basis of the commission of a misdemeanor. Title III, subsection 11(5)(b) of the Manual permits dismissal if an employee is convicted of any felony. However, in the case of nonfelonies, section 11(5)(c) permits dismissal only if it is shown that the employee's "criminal conduct . . . is detrimental to the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his position."

     Mr. Palsis contends that since he was convicted of a misdemeanor, there must be separate evidence, in addition to the mere fact of the conviction, to show that his criminal conduct was detrimental to the performance of his duties and responsibilities. Without this requirement, he says, the Manual's distinction between felony and misdemeanor convictions would be rendered meaningless.

     Mr. Palsis is partially correct in that something more than mere conviction of just any misdemeanor must be shown to justify termination. However, some misdemeanor convictions

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are in their nature proof not only that the conduct of the employee has been unlawful, but that the employee's conduct also was "detrimental to the performance of the duties and responsibilities" of the employee's position. The Chief Justice, in his letter of termination, concluded that this particular conviction of obstruction of justice did have the effect of diminishing the respect of the people for the bailiff's primary duties, "maintaining peaceful operations in the courtroom during proceedings and executing service of process," and therefore inevitably would cause Mr. Palsis to have a diminished ability to perform his job.

     This Court finds that determination reasonable. Obstructing law enforcement officers during performance of their duties reveals an unacceptable lack of respect for legal authority. Such conduct by a court bailiff, especially when widely known, is likely to breed similar attitudes and behavior in otter people toward police, courts, and court officials. It could be seen as hypocritical, and an insult to other police officers, for a court bailiff to be permitted to continue enforcing the laws of this state and nation when he has been convicted of obstructing another officer from performing similar duties

     The Court holds, as a matter of law, that under the Manual, an employee may no be dismissed for conviction of a misdemeanor unless the nature of the conduct leading to the conviction is itself detrimental to the performance of the

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employee’s duties. The Court further holds that this requirement has been satisfied in this case.

II.  Conclusion
     The decision of the Kosrae State Court Personnel Appeals Panel is affirmed.

     It is so ORDERED this 4th  day of October, 1991.

Edward C. King
Associate Justice
Kosrae State

     Entered the 4th day of October, 1991.

Acting Clerk of Court

                         * * * * * * * * *

*Edward C. King, Chief Justice of the Federated States of Micronesia Supreme Court, was designated by acting Kosrae State Court Chief Justice Lyndon Cornelius to serve as Kosrae State Court Associate Justice in this Court. (Back to Opinion)