Court dismisses lawsuit challenging selection of Nuanuaolefeagaiga for Manu’a District No. 1 senate seat
The Trial Division of the High Court has dismissed a lawsuit brought by three traditional leaders of Ta’u County in Manu’a, who challenged the selection of Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga T. Nua to hold one of the two senatorial seats for the Manu’a District No. 1, which comprises Faleasao, Ta’u and Fitiuta counties.
Nuanuaolefeagaiga along with Sen. Galeai M. Tu’ufuli were sworn into office Jan. 3, 2017 along with the rest of the Senate membership. At the time, there were no objections presented to the Senate over Nuanuaolefeagaiga’s selection by traditional leaders of Manu’a District No. 1.
In its 14-page decision issued Mar. 30, the court concluded that because plaintiffs — Lefiti Atiulagi Pese, Maui Aloali’i and Tauese Va’aomala K. Sunia, for themselves and on behalf of the Ta’u County Council — “have not shown that they personally have suffered a concrete injury or have a personal stake in the outcome” on the senatorial seat selection, they lack standing to bring this case.
The court granted Nuanuaolefeagaiga’s motion to dismiss the complaint saying, “It is therefore improper for this court to exercise its jurisdiction.” The decision was signed by Acting Associate Justice Elvis R. Pila Patea and associate judges Muasau T. Tofili and Satele Lili’o Ali’itai.
In the complaint, plaintiffs cited four main points of its argument, which include that the selection of Nuanuaolefeagaiga at Nov. 24 council meeting be “null and void” and declared the selection of Vaitautolu Liugalua during a separate Dec. 27 council meeting as “valid”. (See Samoa News edition Feb. 13 for details.)
The complaint identifies Vaitautolu as “the party of interest”; and according to the complaint, Vaitautolu along with Sen. Galeai M. Tu’ufuli were the selected Manu’a senators at the Dec. 27 meeting and were certified by the county chief.
Nuanuaolefeagaiga, however, argued, among other things, that the process by which he was selected complies with the requirements of the Constitution. Additionally, the court “does not have jurisdiction” over the case because the Constitution grants the Fono the authority to judge the qualification of its members.
Regarding the defendant’s argument that the court “does not have jurisdiction”, the judges disagreed, saying that the Trial Division has repeatedly held that “issues of what needs to be done for the selection of a senator to conform” to the Constitution and whether those requirements were met, “falls within the traditional role accorded to the courts to interpret the law.”
Nuanuaolefeagaiga argued that the plaintiffs lack standing to bring this action and the court agrees. According to the judges, the three chiefs — Lefiti, Maui and Tauese — do not have standing in their individual capacity.
The judges explained that “standing” is statutorily limited to “any candidate” or a mandatory number of “qualified electors” where the Houses of Representatives or territory-wide elections are contested.
Plaintiffs “have not specified what Lefiti, Maui and Tauese have suffered as individuals” and the record before the court “is void of any evidence” that Nuanuaolefeagaiga’s “election has caused the plaintiffs some particular injury,” the decision says.
It also says that any harm suffered by plaintiffs being represented in the Senate by Nuanuaolefeagaiga, instead of Vaitautolu, is shared by all residents of the senatorial district.
Moreover, even if this were a situation in which a voter would have standing to challenge the election process, the individual plaintiffs are not voters in the context of this case.
The judges pointed to the provision of the Constitution, that grants authority for electing senators by the “county councils of the counties they are to represent, in accordance with Samoan custom.”
The judges explained that the Constitution contemplates “Samoan custom and tradition” in which senators are not popularly elected by individuals but by a body of matais. They said, “Lefiti, Maui and Tauese had no right as individuals, matai or otherwise, to elect the senators.”
“Thus, they don’t have standing as individuals to challenge the election process,” the judges observed.
As for plaintiff, Ta’u County Council, they do not have standing either, according to the decision, which notes that this case differs from previous contested Senate election cases decided by the court: the actions in those cases were brought by candidates who believed they had been deprived a Senate seat by faulty electoral process.
Instead, “the instant action was brought by non-candidates purporting to have the right to elect a senator,” the judges pointed out. And the Ta’u County Council “has attempted to cloak itself with standing that is generally associated with individual voters in popular elections.”
The judges noted that the combined council of the three counties of Ta’u, Faleasao and Fitiuta (or the Tri-County Council) “is the elector of their two senators”. Furthermore, the Constitution does not designate one of the two Senate seats for Ta’u county, nor does it empower the Ta’u county council alone to determine the occupant of one of the two Senate seats.
Instead, the Constitution, and testimony received in this case shows, that the council of the three counties “act as a body to elect two senators to represent the counties collectively.”
“Moreover, not only can Ta’u county not establish its standing through a harm to Vaitautolu, but any attempt to advocate for Vaitautolu as the validly elected senator is suspected,” the judges said and notes that plaintiffs “failed to name Vaitautolu as a plaintiff” but instead relegated him to the status of an interested party.
“Even though he is a supposed interested party, Vaitautolu did not appear before the court in any capacity,” the judges said and find it “significant that the two parties who would have suffered the most injury if plaintiffs’ claims are true — Vaitautolu and the Tri-County Council — have no interest in bringing or even joining this action.”
One of the footnotes in the decision, states that although Galeai and Nuanuaolefeagaiga were elected at the Nov. 24 meeting, plaintiffs challenge only the election of Nuanuaolefeagaiga.
“However, if the process of he Nov. 24 meeting is flawed then the election of both senators is invalid,” it says, adding that the court cannot find the Nov. 24 meeting to be invalid, as requested by plaintiffs, but then leave one of the senators in his seat (referring to Galeai) elected at the same meeting.
Additionally, it would be improper to remove Galeai from the Senate without granting him the opportunity to defend his rights as due process requires. The court acknowledges that plaintiffs had asked to declare valid the Dec. 27 meeting, which also purported to elect Galeai.
“This does not change the fact, however, that Galeai’s right to the Senate seat would be in jeopardy because plaintiffs asked the court to invalidate the election that the Senate has already accepted and it is possible that the court or the Senate would not accept plaintiffs’ proposed election results,” it says.
Plaintiffs were represented by attorney M. Talaimalo Uiagalelei, while attorney Gwen Tauiliili-Langkilde represented the defendant.