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Former U.S. delegates file "Amici Curiae” brief in citizenship case

U.S. Federal District Court building Salt Lake City, Utah
Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands support the plaintiffs

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A new Amici Curiae” brief in the citizenship case claims that while they are respectful of American Samoa’s leaders, granting US citizenship to persons born in American Samoa — who are currently considered US nationals —  will not imperil the Samoan culture nor will it alter American Samoa’s legal regime. The brief of Amici Curiae” — or “friends of the court” — was filed yesterday at the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Denver, Colorado.

The “Amici Curiae” brief by current and former Delegates to the US House from Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands as well as former governors of these four territories is in support of the plaintiffs — three American Samoans living in Utah —  in the citizenship case appealed in the federal court in Salt Lake City, Utah.

As previously reported by Samoa News, US District Court Judge Clark Waddoups of the federal district court in Salt Lake City declared — among other things — in a Dec. 12, 2019 decision ruled that “Persons born in American Samoa are citizens of the United States by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

“Reversing the district court’s decision would not only affect American Samoans but also imperil the U.S. citizenship, with all its attendant rights, of the people born in the other four Territories,” declared the Amici in their brief.

The appeal’s court “should affirm” Waddoups’ decision “and recognize that those born in American Samoa — and Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI), Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are birthright citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment,” they said.

The defendants — the US State Department, along with the Secretary of State and other senior officials — and the Intervenors — the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Aumua Amata — appealed Waddoups’ decision and asked to reverse the lower court’s decision. (See Samoa News editions Apr. 15, Apr. 23 for details, and May 7th for plaintiffs reply.)


The Amici argued that withholding citizenship from the plaintiffs — who are  “Americans... adopts a remarkable view of the Constitution that would reverberate well beyond American Samoa.” They point out that there are millions of U.S. citizens born in Guam, the NMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The defendants, in their brief said this case presents the question whether American Samoa — a territory not destined for Statehood and known as an “unincorporated territory” — is “in the United States” for purposes of the Citizenship Clause.

“Constitutional text, [U.S] Supreme Court precedent, and historical practice all confirm that the answer is no,” according to the federal government’s brief, noting that the US Constitution itself draws a distinction between “the United States” and “Territory or other Property belonging to” it.

The Amici argued that if American Samoa is not “in the United States” for purposes of the Citizenship Clause, then neither is Guam, NMI, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands.

“And if those Territories are not “in the United States,” then the millions of citizens born there are truly second-class citizens,” the Amici points out. “They would be citizens at the pleasure of Congress only, a status that could be revoked at the whim of a temporary legislative majority.”

“This shocking and un-American possibility finds no support in the Constitution,” they further argued.  “Indeed, the U.S. government’s interpretation rests on the absurd premise that Territories that have long been part of the United States — in some cases for much more than a century — are not really “in the United States.”

As Plaintiffs explain, that premise and the reading of the Constitution that flow from it are wrong, the Amici points out.

“And while Amici have great respect for American Samoa and its support for cultural preservation and self-determination, the specific concerns it raises over citizenship are misplaced,” the brief said.

“Moreover, American Samoa’s leaders do not hold a veto over the constitutional rights of the inhabitants of all the Territories,” according to the Amici, who made clear to the appeal’s court that the futures of the U.S. citizens in Guam, the NMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands “are very much at stake in this appeal.”

And because the US Supreme Court has made clear that citizenship resulting from legislative grace is not entitled to the same protections as Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship, reversing the district court’s decision would not only impact American Samoans but also destabilize the U.S. citizenship enjoyed by the people of Guam, the NMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


“Again with great respect for the Government of American Samoa, its speculative reasons for opposing citizenship are simply without basis,” the Amici said. “Amici can say this based on actual experience.”

They explained that Guamanians, Puerto Ricans, Northern Mariana Islanders, and Virgin Islanders have enjoyed U.S. citizenship for decades without sacrificing their cultural heritage or ability to alter the terms of their political relationship with the United States.

“There is no reason to think that the experience of American Samoans would be any different,” they argued. “Likewise, the prospect that citizenship might somehow make American Samoa’s laws more susceptible to constitutional challenge is refuted by the experience of the other Territories, whose distinctive legal norms have been upheld against similar challenges.”

Amici notes that ASG intervened in this litigation to express the concern that if American Samoans were considered citizens, aspects of its culture or ability to exercise self-determination could be imperiled.

“While Amici fully respect the importance that American Samoa’s leaders place on cultural preservation and self-determination, the most American Samoa has done is offer vague speculation about how its culture or right to self-determination might be affected,” they said.

Amici, on the other hand, argued that they can show through actual lived experience how U.S. citizenship is compatible with the Territories’ local legal traditions, the preservation of their vibrant cultural heritage, and their ability to determine their own political future. The Amici outlined its lengthy argument on how their respective cultures have survived as US citizens.

They also argued that recognizing birthright citizenship will not alter American Samoa’s legal regime, pointing out that for the last century, U.S. citizenship has proven an important and enduring part of the Territories’ relationship to the United States.

For example, territorial governments are already similar to their counterparts in the States in many ways, with each territory having a tripartite government headed by a democratically elected governor.

“Concerns about American Samoa’s ability to reinvent its political relationship with the United States under birthright citizenship are unfounded,” they point out.

Contrary to ASG’s “speculation”, the Amici argued that there is no support at all for the notion that U.S. citizenship would compromise American Samoa’s local legal regime by subjecting its traditions “to heightened — and potentially fatal — constitutional scrutiny.” (Referring to quotation from ASG’s briefing).

“Moreover, fears that recognition of U.S. citizenship would result in a loss of land rights in American Samoa are misplaced,” they further argued, noting that ASG itself concedes (through its brief) that “it is far from predetermined that precedent would require abolition of the matai system” and other unique aspects of the archipelago’s legal ordering “if th[is] Court extend[s] U.S. citizenship to American Samoa.”

Samoa News will report in the future, other issues raised by Amici including federal funding disparity for the territories including American Samoa.