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Dear Editor,   

This is in response to recent articles on the possible deactivation of those attorneys who were admitted to practice in American Samoa when they resided there but who now reside overseas.

The right to counsel is a fundamental cornerstone of our legal system. American Samoa has long faced a critical shortage of local attorneys.  Many residents now cannot find an attorney who is available or not conflicted. This is a risk to legal justice and the constitutional right to counsel.

The Attorney General Office's recent interpretation of the residency requirement for attorneys puts that at risk. The AG’s interpretation serves only to penalize experienced former resident attorneys who are willing to continue supporting American Samoa’s residents from a distance, rather than addressing the root cause of the issue which is the insufficient number of practicing attorneys on the island.

The solution lies not in wholesale deactivating of the non-resident attorneys but in modernizing and updating the judicial and administrative procedures to allow for online filings of pleadings and motions, and enabling court and administrative hearings, including evidentiary hearings, to be conducted online.

I understand there are concerns about how this can be done effectively but those are mostly technical issues related primarily to the conduct of court proceedings. This modernization has progressed in the states especially since the COVID epidemic and technical problems are addressed and resolved as they arise without restricting access to counsel.  This approach not only ensures that residents can receive the legal representation they deserve but also alleviates the burden on local attorneys and makes courts more efficient. Our High Court, Administrative Court and ASG agencies have made some progress in this area but clearly more needs to be done.

While I am ending my active court practice and transitioning to Washington State, I remain committed to providing legal advice to American Samoa clients from afar.

If the AG’s drastic interpretation were to be implemented, it would put my commitment and that of other former resident American Samoa attorneys at risk and will leave many residents without adequate access to legal advice and representation.

Without the right to counsel, the judicial system is closed to most people. We should be advocating for more access to justice, not less. The AG's office should withdraw this interpretation of the rules, and the courts should take this opportunity to continue modernizing our justice system.


Charles V. Ala’ilima