The Territory Federal Jurisdiction Forgot: The Question of Greater Federal Jurisdiction in American Samoa

Article excerpt

Abstract: The United States Territory of American Samoa is over 7000 miles from Washington, D.C., and that distance might explain the United States' limited interest in the territory. The lack of interest has allowed American Samoa to maintain its unique cultural foundations. However, it has also kept American Samoa detached from the federal governmental structure, including the judicial system. In fact, a federal district court does not exist in American Samoa, nor has the territory been incorporated into a federal judicial district. A lack of a federal presence has not been a major issue until recently. In the last few years, the U.S. government has begun to prosecute American Samoan residents for violations of federal law. Without a federal jurisdictional presence, these prosecutions have taken place off-island impacting the constitutional rights of American Samoa residents. These renditions have increased calls for the creation of a federal district court in American Samoa. While a greater federal presence would be helpful, the creation of a district court is unnecessary. A better solution would be to increase the current jurisdiction of the local territorial judiciary to incorporate greater federal jurisdiction.


The United States Territory of American Samoa is unique for many reasons. It is the only inhabited part of the United States south of the equator. American Samoans are U.S. nationals but not automatically U.S. citizens. Over ninety percent of the land is owned communally and strict prohibitions prevent the alienation of land to non-Samoans. It also is the only U.S. territory that does not have a federal district court and has not been incorporated into a federal judicial district.

The United States established American Samoa's judicial system when the island became a U.S. territory. The High Court of American Samoa is the court of general jurisdiction for the territory. Congress has given the high court federal jurisdiction in a number of areas, but it still lacks jurisdiction in a number of important matters, including bankruptcy and federal crimes listed in Title 18 of the United States Code.

Over the years, numerous proposals have been made to create a federal district court, or even to include American Samoa in an existing federal judicial district. However, a combination of congressional neglect and Samoan hostility has contributed to the absence of a federal district court. In 2006, American Samoa's Delegate to Congress, Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, introduced a bill that would have established a federal district court in American Samoa.1 He eventually withdrew it, but the debate continues.

Many Samoans are nervous that a greater federal presence in the territory, through the creation of a federal district court, would destroy the unique foundations of Samoan society, namely the communal land system and the matai chiefly title system.2 However, the creation of a federal district court in the territory is gaining momentum.3 In recent years, a number of American Samoan residents have been prosecuted for violating federal criminal statutes.4 Due to the lack of a federal district court, the residents have not been tried in American Samoa and instead have been removed from the territory and tried in jurisdictions thousands of miles away with little connection to the alleged crime.5 A growing uneasiness is developing in the territory over this type of rendition.6 Beyond local resentment, these federal prosecutions also implicate the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury composed of members from the district where the crime was committed.

A greater federal presence would prevent the rendition of American Samoan residents. However, a federal district court is not necessarily the answer. This article argues for the creation of a new "federal division" within the High Court of American Samoa. The federal division would have jurisdiction over federal laws that would secure the rights of American Samoan residents but still protect their traditional customs. …


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