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UPDATE: Supreme Court rules not to hear birthright citizenship case

John Fitisemanu
“… victory belongs to the forceful voices in favor of self-determination”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The U.S Supreme Court yesterday denied a request by three individuals born in American Samoa and residing in Utah, to review a decision by the majority of the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that citizenship birth on U.S. soil is not applicable to those born in American Samoa.

“The Court’s decision is a real victory for the people of American Samoa,” declared Michael F. Williams of the Washington D.C. based law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, which represented the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Uifa’atali Amata — who are Intervenors in the case — while the U.S State Department and other federal officials are defendants.

“There was a threat that the federal courts would decide the status of American Samoa without any regard for the will of the people of American Samoa, despite all that Samoans have contributed to the United States,” said Williams responding to Samoa News queries a few hours after the Supreme Court decision was made public. “Supreme Court has turned away that threat.”

Williams, who is the attorney of record for ASG and Uifa’atali for this federal case, points out that the “credit for [the] victory belongs to the forceful voices in favor of self-determination that persuaded the justices to reject the case.”

“This result is a testament to the resolve of the people of American Samoa, their elected officials in the American Samoa Government, and the advocate they have in Congresswoman Uifa’atali,” he concluded.

Lead plaintiff in the case, John Fitisemanu described the decision by the highest court in the nation, as a “punch in the gut for the Justices to leave in place a ruling that says ‘I am not equal to other Americans simply because I was born in a U.S. territory’.”

“I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay my taxes like everyone else,” said Fitisemanu in a statement released yesterday morning by U.S based Equally American, which advocates for equality and civil rights in U.S. territories. “But because of a discriminatory federal law, I am not recognized as a U.S. citizen. As a result, I can’t even vote in local elections, much less for President. This is un-American and cannot be squared with America’s democratic and constitutional principles.”

Fitisemanu said he had hoped to hear yesterday that he would have his day before the U.S. Supreme Court, but “instead the Justices continue to avoid answering basic questions about what rights people from U.S. territories can expect. People from the territories deserve better from this Court and better from this nation.”

There’s been no official public comment from the federal defendants on the Supreme Court decision, which also denied the plaintiffs’ request to overturn the Insular Cases, which are a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court issued in 1901, about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish-American War, and the periods shortly thereafter, in which the court ruled that full constitutional rights did not automatically extend to all areas under American control.

Neil Weare, president and founder of Equally American, who is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs said in a statement yesterday morning that the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the Insular Cases continues to reflect that ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ does not mean the same thing for the 3.6 million residents of U.S. territories as it does for everyone else.

“The Supreme Court in recent years has not hesitated to rule in ways that harm residents of U.S. territories. But when asked to stand up for the rights of people in the territories — even the basic right to citizenship — the Justices are silent,” he said.

Additionally, the “inaction by the Justices highlights the fact that America has a colonies problem. On top of that, our country stubbornly refuses to recognize that this problem even exists, much less do anything about it.”

The Supreme Court online records provide no other information on the justices’ decision except that the plaintiffs’ Petition for a Writ of Certiorari is “denied”. And the Tenth Circuit was also informed yesterday of the Supreme Court’s decision.


The Intervenors had argued — among other things — in their opposition briefing to the Supreme Court that the decision by the Tenth Circuit correctly respects the Fa’a Samoa and the political autonomy of the American Samoan people. And imposing birth right citizenship on the American Samoan people would threaten serious disruption to the Fa’a Samoa.

However, the plaintiffs had argued — among other things — that: “Extending citizenship has not impaired cultural preservation or self-determination in any other U.S. Territory, and there is no reason to suppose the result would be different in American Samoa.”

The federal government has sided with the Intervenors throughout the course of this case, arguing that the term “the United States,” as used in the Citizenship Clause, does not include the territories, such as American Samoa.

The U.S Justice Department, which represented the federal defendants, had said that the Tenth Circuit was “consistent with the wishes of the Samoan people, who have made clear through their elected representatives that they do not favor birthright citizenship.”

This is the second identical citizenship case in which the Supreme Court has denied a request to hear a lower court’s ruling. The first one was in 2016 in the case of Tuaua v. United States — which began at the federal court in Washington D.C.

For the Insular Cases, both the federal defendants and the Intervenors objected to the Supreme Court taking up such matter in the Fitisemanu case.

Specifically, the Intervenors had argued that the citizenship issue pertaining to persons born in American Samoa, is “an exceptionally poor vehicle for reconsidering the Insular Cases”, and should wait for a case that actually requires revisiting Insular Cases.

Link to Civil Beat for additional views on the subject