The Territory Federal Jurisdiction Forgot: The Question of Greater Federal Jurisdiction in American Samoa
Weaver, Michael W., Washington International Law Journal
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. An expansion of the high court's jurisdiction would be a better solution than a federal district court because it avoids creating an entirely alien judicial system in American Samoa.
Part II will provide a brief history of federal district courts and territorial courts as well as examine the existing U.S. territorial courts. Part III will review the unique judiciary of American Samoa. Part IV will discuss the current problems with American Samoan jurisdiction using two recent circuit court of appeals decisions that sanctioned the rendition of American Samoan residents from the territory to be tried in other jurisdictions. Finally, Part V will examine the most recent proposal to create a federal district court in American Samoa and will conclude that the creation of a federal district court is not necessary; instead, empowering the High Court of American Samoa with federal jurisdiction in specific areas would resolve some of the open questions concerning jurisdiction in American Samoa.
II. EXCEPT FOR AMERICAN SAMOA, THE FEDERAL JUDICIAL STRUCTURE HAS SERVED AS A MODEL FOR U.S. TERRITORIAL JUDICIAL SYSTEMS
United States district courts have been part of the judicial system since the first Judiciary Act of 1789. …