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U.S. State Department files reply to plaintiffs in appeal to citizenship case

Photo of a 'national' passport
Case is “too broad” and “ignores wishes” of many living in the territory

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The US State Department has argued that, among other things, a federal district court decision on the US citizenship case is too broad, overboard and ignores the wishes of American Samoa’s elected officials and US nationals living in the territory, according to the federal government’s appeal brief filed last week with US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal based in Denver, Colorado.

The federal agency, along with the US Secretary of State, and other senior officials are defendants in the lawsuit filed more than a year ago by three individuals who were born in American Samoa and currently living in Utah. The plaintiffs argued that they are entitled to automatic US citizenship because they were born in American Samoa.

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

In his 125-page appeal brief, the defendants’ legal team raised two issues:

•     Whether the district court erred in holding that the federal law pertaining to US nationals born in American Samoa is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

•     Whether the district court erred in entering injunctive relief that extends to all individuals born in American Samoa, rather than limiting its relief to the plaintiffs before the court.

Intervenors in this case are the American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Aumua Amata, who filed their brief Apr. 14th.  (See Samoa News edition Apr. 15th for details.)


The defendants point out that 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.

And since the United States first began to acquire unincorporated territories, the Supreme Court has recognized that Congress has the power “to prescribe upon what terms the United States will receive [a territory’s] inhabitants, and what their status shall be”, defendants said and cited previous federal cases.

“In keeping with this recognition, Congress has long addressed by statute the citizenship status of individuals born in those territories,” such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

“Likewise, since American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900, individuals born there have never been treated as citizens at birth under the Citizenship Clause,” the defendants note.

“Instead, Congress has statutorily designated those individuals as non-citizen nationals of the United States,” the defendants said, noting that non-citizen nationals may work and travel freely in the United States, carry U.S. passports, and receive certain advantages if they choose to apply for naturalization.

Despite this longstanding constitutional tradition, the district court concluded that every person born in American Samoa is a citizen at birth under the Fourteenth Amendment because American Samoa is “in the United States,” the defendants said.

Furthermore, the federal circuit court in Washington in the Tuaua case addressed this precise question, and upheld the D.C. district court decision dismissing the Tuaua case.  Additionally, four other circuit court have made similar rulings.

The Salt Lake City federal court “issued a universal injunction covering everyone born in American Samoa— including the unsuccessful litigants” in the D.C. Circuit Court litigation, according to the defendants who argued that the Salt Lake City federal court “erred and its judgment should be reversed.”


Even if this Court does not reverse the district court’s judgment in its entirety, the defendants argue that “Article III and basic principles of equity at a minimum require that the district court’s injunction be narrowed to apply only to plaintiffs.”

As a general matter, in the absence of a certified class action, a district court lacks the power to grant relief that goes beyond what is necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs.

“Yet that is precisely what the district court did here,” the defendants argued. To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff “must allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief,” the defendants explained.

Because plaintiffs are not injured by the application of the challenged statute or regulation to third parties, “plaintiffs lack standing to seek — and the district court therefore lacks authority to grant—relief that benefits third parties,” according to the defendants citing previous federal cases, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 on another case.

Defendants - who also argued that the district court’s decision is “over-broad” point out that the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries — that they are not treated as citizens; that they are unable to take advantage of certain benefits of citizenship (such as the ability to vote; that their passports bear an endorsement code reflecting their U.S. national status; and that they face certain immigration restrictions and costs to become naturalized citizens.

“Those harms would be fully remedied by an injunction that applies only to plaintiffs,” the defendant said, and argued that there’s no reason why an injunction that applies to non-parties is necessary to “redress the plaintiff[s’] particular injury,” because plaintiffs do not and could not claim that they personally are injured by the denial of citizenship to third parties born in American Samoa.

“Plaintiffs likewise have not availed themselves of any mechanism to represent the interests of nonparties: they have not sought to certify a class, and they have not asserted — and could not establish - third party standing to represent others in this suit,” the defendants argued.

“They therefore have no entitlement to seek relief on behalf of others — many of whom, like fellow American Samoans who oppose the extension of birthright citizenship, would in fact regard the district court’s injunction as an unwelcome imposition of a status they do not seek,” the defendant said.

By issuing an injunction that applies to all “persons born in American Samoa,” the district court effectively nullified the government’s — and the Government of American Samoa’s — victory in Tuaua case, granting relief to the plaintiffs in that suit they did not obtain and would be barred from attempting to seek through a second suit.

The defendants also said that there is firm reason to conclude that the district court’s injunction would afford “relief” to many persons born in American Samoa who do not want to be United States citizens: the Government of American Samoa and its delegate to Congress, the democratically-elected representatives of the people of American Samoa, intervened to oppose the ruling the plaintiffs obtained on the merits.

“The sweeping relief entered by the district court is especially out of place in these circumstances,” the defendant said and requests the appeal’s court to reverse the lower court’s decision.

At a minimum, the lower court’s injunction should be narrowed to apply only to plaintiffs, the defendants concluded.