ASBA conference promoting “justice in the rule of law”
The highlight of the 40-year anniversary of the American Samoa Bar Association (ASBA) has been to promote justice and the rule of law in the territory.
These were remarks made by Bar Association President Sean Morrison during the law conference of the ASBA held at the ASCC lecture hall over the weekend.
“Justice in the rule of law, it means a number of things. We work to promote a wise legislature, one that can create laws, protect, guide and approve society; a legislature that has the ability to look forward to types of problems before they arise, promoting a strong and yet an accountable executive that has the ability to enforce the law and also recognizes that nobody is above the law,” he said.
“Nobody is above the law’ is really a key point to the rule of law,” he noted. “We’re saying that despite rank, title or office, you are still subject to the law and it also requires a decent judiciary that is able to quickly resolve and protect the right of the people” said Morrison. He added that perhaps more importantly the rule of law... requires an informed and active public.
Morrison said the celebration of the 40 years since ASBA was established “is a good opportunity as an organization to really look back at who were, who we are and how we got here — to remember the successes, and remember those who helped bring us where we are today”. More than 40 lawyers attended the law conference, where the opening prayer was conducted by Reverend Asaua Fuimaono, a lawyer by profession.
The ASBA was established in 1972 for the purpose of improving the administration of justice, and everyone who was admitted to the practice of law on a regular basis before any division of the High Court of American Samoa were members of the bar association.
Veteran attorney Roy Hall, who became the ‘second’ Samoan lawyer in the territory, conducted a presentation on the history of the ASBA. The ASBA was established by a legal practitioner, the late A. P Lutali, and along with the late Peter Tali Coleman. the former governors of American Samoa were the founding fathers of the ASBA.
Hall also listed the names of the High Court justices for the last 40 years: Donald Crothers 1968-1972, Leslie Jochimson 1971-1976, William McKnight 1972-1975, William O’Conner 1977-1978, Richard Miyamoto 1976-1981, Thomas Murphy 1980-1987, Robert Gardner 1981-1986, Grover Joseph Reese III 1988-1988, Michael Kruse 1987 to present, with Lyle Richmond appointed associate Justice 1991 to the present.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the ASBA was very active and meetings were well attended by the legal practitioners, lawyers, and land and titles practitioners who were also traditional leaders in the territory, said Hall, adding that the legal participation of the ASBA slowed after the year 2000, with many senior attorneys serving in the judiciary, some entering politics, while some sadly passed on.
Hall said that also in the 1970’s and 1980’s the ASBA started to hold law conferences with the Western Samoa Law Society, wherein they selected legal subjects and held debates on the issues of jurisdiction, land and titles, immigration law, international law and cross practice of law in both jurisdictions.
He said that many members of the ASBA also made appearances and served as lawyers in cases before the Samoa Supreme Court and vice versa. Hall also cited a few landmark cases which coincided with their conference theme: “40 years of promoting justice in the territory”.
One example given was the case of a newspaper publisher who was prosecuted and convicted for failure to file his tax return. A member of the local bar championed the case, and with the assistance of a law firm in the US, sued the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, and the federal court reversed the conviction because the editor was a U.S. citizen and had been denied a jury trial.
“This is the reason that the courts in American Samoa have jury trials in criminal matters,”said Hall.
The veteran lawyer said there is much more that the ASBA can do to promote justice, equality and fairness to the community and this region. “It is a challenge that is always there... we as lawyers must take action when we see an injustice, and make it right — don’t just make it better, make it right," he said.
Hall concluded his presentation by stating that as a lawyer he believes that there are many issues that the law profession must have open debates on.
Some of these issues are voting rights for all qualified voters in the territory, allowing US citizens by birth or naturalization, extending US immigration and customs to American Samoa to make the territory a port of entry, establish a federal court as part of the federal 9th Judicial district — either through the high court or as part of the Hawai’i federal district court — and balance this with how to become an organized and incorporated territory with the US, while preserving the best of the culture, and protecting communal lands to allow for development and prosperity for the people of American Samoa.
One of the highlights of the conference was the formal presentation of the first Arthur A. Morrow Justice Award — named after American Samoa's longest serving chief justice. It recognizes an individual or an organization that has made significant improvements to the justice system and the rule of law in American Samoa.
Attorney Sharron Rancourt, on behalf of the ASBA, presented the award to Ipu Avegalio Lefiti, a strong advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
During the presentation, Rancourt said that Lefiti has shown true commitment to providing justice to the people of American Samoa and has been instrumental in organizing family violence diversity training, cultural sensitivity awareness programs, and communication seminars.
“Lefiti champions the victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault through court watch. She has been a strong activist of promoting awareness through church and community partnerships,” Rancourt said.
Upon receiving the award, Lefiti thanked the Bar Association for acknowledging her work. She said that there must always be hope for victims of crime.