Laches Standard of Review
The standard of review for laches in the Commonwealth has varied over time. We previously stated that laches presents a mixed question of law and fact and is reviewed de novo. Rosario v. Camacho, 2001 MP 3 P 55, 6 N. Mar. I. 213.
We have also characterized laches as strictly a question of law reviewed de novo. Santos v. Santos, 3 NMI 39, 46 (1992). Prior to our holdings, the United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands characterized laches as a finding of fact, subject to the trial court's discretion, "which cannot be disturbed unless it is shown to be clearly erroneous so as to amount to an abuse of discretion." Palacios v. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, 2 C.R. 904, 908 (Dist. Ct. App. Div. 1986).
In accordance with the District Court, the High Court of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands held that, "whether laches applies to a given case depends upon the circumstances of the particular case and is a question primarily addressed to the discretion of the Trial Court." Rabauliman v. Matagolai, 7 T.T.R. 424, 425 (High Ct. App. Div. 1976);
see Nanmwarki v. Etscheit Family, 8 T.T.R. 287, 291 (High Ct. App. Div. 1982); see also Pwalendin v. Ehmel, 8 T.T.R. 548, 553 (High Ct. App. Div. 1986) ("The issue of laches turns on the circumstances of a given case and it is best left to the trial court's discretion.")
These varying opinions created confusion regarding the appropriate standard of review applicable to laches. We now reiterate that "we review de novo whether laches is available as a matter of law and for an abuse of discretion the trial court's decision whether to apply laches to the facts." O'Donnell v. Vencor, Inc., 466 F.3d 1104, 1109 (9th Cir. 2006).
This standard comports with the equitable nature of laches, In re Beaty, 306 F.3d 914, 921 (9th Cir. 2002).
The United States Supreme Court previously employed such a standard. See Burnett v. New York Cent. C. R. Co., 380 U.S. 424, 435, 85 S. Ct. 1050, 13 L. Ed. 2d 941 (1965) (determining that whether laches bars an action depends upon the circumstances of that case and is a question left to the trial court's discretion).