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Washington D.C. fed court dismisses citizenship lawsuit

The federal court in Washington D.C. has dismissed the citizenship lawsuit filed last July by five American Samoans and a California based organization, whose suit asked the court to declare that all persons born in American Samoa should be automatic U.S. citizens.


Defendants in the suit are the federal government, and three U.S. State Department officials who last year asked the court to dismiss the case. Congressman Faleomavaega Eni, who filed an amicus brief as “friend of the court” supported the State Department.


On Tuesday this week, the American Samoa Government filed a motion to intervene but was dismissed yesterday by the federal court saying the issue is now moot due to the ruling in the case. (See “background” below on ASG’s motion)


 “Although we are glad that Judge Leon recognized that ‘none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause’, we are disappointed that he was not willing to consider those century-old cases in light of more recent court decisions that explain the need to focus on American Samoa’s unique history and modern circumstances,” said local attorney Charles Alailima.


Lead plaintiff, Leneuoti Tuaua said that so “long as American Samoa is U.S. soil, I continue to believe that the Constitution guarantees my family the right to citizenship. It should not be up to Congress.”


Attorney Ala’ilima added that Judge Leon’s decision is just the start of the legal process.
“We’ve known all along that the significant constitutional issues in this case would be decided on appeal, no matter which way the trial judge decided. We respectfully disagree with Judge Leon’s analysis, and we will be discussing the options for appeal with our clients,” he said.


Plaintiffs had sought declaratory and injunctive relief against defendants and the related parties that execute United States citizenship laws. They assert that the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause extends to American Samoa and that people born in American Samoa are therefore U.S. citizens at birth.


Plaintiffs also argue that the Immigration and Naturalization Act is unconstitutional because it provides that American Samoans are noncitizen U.S. nationals. The main gist of the lawsuit is that all persons born in American Samoa should be automatic U.S. citizens based on the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.


“Because plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court grants defendants' motion to dismiss,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon in his 17-page decision issued yesterday. He also states that the court is the proper jurisdiction to determine whether the Citizenship clause applies to American Samoa.


According to the judge, plaintiffs’ claims all hinge upon one legal assertion— which is that the Citizenship Clause guarantees the citizenship of people born in American Samoa.


However, the defendants argue that this assertion must be rejected in light of the Constitution's plain language, rulings from the Supreme Court and other federal courts, longstanding historical practice, and pragmatic considerations, the judge noted.


“Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, I agree. The Citizenship Clause does not guarantee birthright citizenship to American Samoans,” said Leon.


The judge points out that the Citizenship Clause provides that "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."


Leon said both parties “seem to agree” that American Samoa is "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States, and other courts have concluded as much.


But to be covered by the Citizenship Clause, a person must be born or naturalized "in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof”, he said.


Thus, the key question becomes whether American Samoa qualifies as a part of the "United States" as that is used within the Citizenship Clause, said Leon, who noted that the U.S. Supreme Court “famously addressed” the extent to which the Constitution applies in territories in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases.


In these cases, the Supreme Court contrasted “incorporated" territories — those lands expressly made part of the United States by an act of Congress — with “unincorporated territories” that had not yet become part of the United States and were not on a path toward statehood.


“In an unincorporated territory, the Insular Cases held that only certain ‘fundamental’ constitutional rights are extended to its inhabitants,” he said. “While none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause, they suggested that citizenship was not a ‘fundamental’ right that applied to unincorporated territories.


(American Samoa is an unincorporated, unorganized U.S. territory).


For example, in the Insular Case of Downes v. Bidwell, the Court addressed, via multiple opinions, whether the Revenue Clause of the Constitution applied in the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico, said Leon.


“In an opinion for the majority, Justice Brown intimated in dicta that citizenship was not guaranteed to unincorporated territories,” said Leon and noted that Justice Brown added that "it is doubtful if Congress would ever assent to the annexation of territory upon the condition that its inhabitants, however foreign they may be to our habits, traditions, and modes of life, shall become at once citizens of the United States."


Leon also pointed out that other federal courts have adhered to the precedents of the Insular Cases in similar cases involving unincorporated territories. For example, the Second, Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits have held that the term "United States" in the Citizenship Clause did not include the Philippines during its time as an unincorporated territory.


“In short, federal courts have held over and over again that unincorporated territories are not included within the Citizenship Clause, and this Court sees no reason to do otherwise,” he said.


Leon also says that the “court is mindful of the years of past practice in which territorial citizenship has been treated as a statutory, and not a constitutional, right.”


In the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, birthright citizenship was conferred upon their inhabitants by various statutes many years after the United States acquired them, he said.


“If the Citizenship Clause guaranteed birthright citizenship in unincorporated territories, these statutes would have been unnecessary,” he said. “While longstanding practice is not sufficient to demonstrate constitutionality, such a practice requires special scrutiny before being set aside.”


And while Congress cannot take away the citizenship of individuals covered by the Citizenship Clause, it can bestow citizenship upon those not within the Constitution's breadth, he said and cited a provision of the Constitution which states that "Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory belonging to the United States."


“To date, Congress has not seen fit to bestow birthright citizenship upon American Samoa, and in accordance with the law, this Court must and will respect that choice,” said Leon.


Plaintiffs in the case are Leneuoti Fiafia Tuaua, Va'aleama Tovia Fosi, Fanuatanu Fauesala Lifa Mamea, Taffy-Lei T. Maene, Emy Fiatala Afaleva and the Samoa Federation of America.




Congressman Faleomavaega Eni said yesterday from Washington D.C. that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit “sought to reverse years of legal precedent that has provided for the stable administration of the U.S. territories.”


He says the decision by the federal court is a “victory for all Samoans”, adding that the decision “also reaffirms Congress’ plenary power to provide for citizenship for persons born in U.S. territories.”


Faleomavaega reiterated that he is not opposed to citizenship for American Samoans. “...however the decision should be made by the people and not by a court. After the people decide they desire citizenship, I can work with Congress on legislation to provide citizenship for persons born in American Samoa,” he said.




Prior to yesterday’s dismissal, the American Samoa Government had filed an intervention motion with the federal court in Washington DC noting the outcome will have an impact on local customs and communal land.


Given that ASG lawyers are not members of the District of Columbia Bar, Frank S. Swain with the Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, a firm in DC, was hired to file the motion on behalf of Attorney General Afoa L Su’esu’e Lutu and Deputy Attorney General Eleasalo Ale.


The motion noted that ASG and its citizens undoubtedly have an interest in the outcome of this case because the Court's ruling will greatly affect the governing laws and culture of the island territory.


“ASG and its citizens have long sought to protect the culture of American Samoa and have enacted laws to support this effort.”


The motion noted an example, because land in American Samoa is so intimately tied to the cultural identity of American Samoans, the American Samoan Legislature enacted laws to prohibit the alienation of any communal land without written approval by the Governor of American Samoa.


Additionally, laws have been enacted to ensure that the Samoan culture is effectuated throughout ASG and its departments


ASG said if the Court finds that the Fourteenth Amendment applies universally in American Samoa, these laws, which arguably make distinctions between people according to their heritage, may be held to a higher level of scrutiny or even invalidated. “This in turn would cause drastic effects to ASG's ability to govern the territory and protect the Samoan culture in American Samoa. “For these reasons, ASG has a strong interest in the outcome of this case which could be impaired by the Court’s decision and, therefore, should be allowed to intervene.


ASG also cited that its interest is inadequately represented by the current parties in this case and that ASG should also be permitted to intervene pursuant to rule, ie ASG is seeking to defend its interest against the potential harm to American Samoan culture and legal system that would result if the Plaintiffs are successful in redefining their national status.


Reporter Joyetter Feagaimaali’i-Luamanu contributed to this report.


Download pdf of decision below.