Fed and local courts deny motions in Hueter’s constitutional rights suits
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A federal judge has denied as “moot” a motion by local resident Steven Jay Pincus Hueter for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction against federal and American Samoa defendants, whom the plaintiff accused of violating his constitutional rights as a result of local COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile, federal and American Samoa defendants have declined plaintiff’s request for mediation to reach a resolution in his federal complaint, which is similar to Hueter’s case pending in the High Court of American Samoa.
Hueter, representing himself, sued Acting US Secretary of the Interior, Scott de la Vega, and Chief Justice Michael Kruse as well as several current and former ASG officials at the federal court in Washington D.C.
He also filed a separate motion for a TRO and Preliminary Injunction to enjoin the defendants from enforcing — among other things — public gatherings and religious service restriction of hours in the declaration.
Both federal and ASG defendants — in separate filings — responded asking the court to dismiss the complaint, and oppose the TRO and Preliminary Injunction. They argued — among other things — that the new Feb. 19 declaration allows religious services 24/7 and therefore this issue is moot. (See Samoa News edition Feb. 24th and online edition Feb. 25th for details of response from federal and American Samoa defendants.)
However, the plaintiff is not backing down, arguing among other things that the Feb. 19th declaration doesn’t make the religious service issue moot, claiming that the case is far from over, according to the Hueter’s new court filing.
Hueter argued — among other things that — plaintiff has clearly established standing, and his claim does not merely fail because the issuance of the Feb. 19th declaration, which “has finally granted ‘religious services’ after after 12 midnight and before 5a.m.
He further argued that “all of the other clear, specific, individualized violations by defendants remain, rendered this action justiciable, relevant, active, and actual controversy that is absolutely not moot.”
But US District Court Judge, Trevor N. McFadden — in an opinion issued last Friday — sided with the defendants that the issue is moot.
McFadden recalled that Hueter had claimed that the American Samoa Government’s restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have violated his constitutional rights.
For the TRO and Preliminary Injunction motion, McFadden said that the court construes Hueter’s emergency motion as seeking relief from the ASG’s Jan. 30, 2021 declaration, which prohibits public gatherings, including religious service between 12a.m. and 5a.m, except for StarKist and its documented business affiliates.
Hueter argues that the Jan. 30th declaration violated his “First Amendment freedoms” and prevented him from attending church during the restricted hours, according to the court’s opinion.
To be sure, government restrictions that prevent attendance at religious services can “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the judge said citing a quote from the 2020 federal case brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn case against the governor of New York, which imposed strict COVID-19 restrictions.
Indeed, the “instinct to protect religious freedom has roots that predate the Constitution,” the judge said, citing a quote from a separate 2020 federal case.
“Perhaps in response to Hueter’s filings” at the federal court, the American Samoa Government issued the new Feb. 19th declaration “to provide the relief that Hueter seeks here,” said McFadden.
“Specifically”, the Feb. 19th declaration now provides: “Public gatherings, except for religious services, are prohibited between the hours of 12 midnight and 5am,” the judge points out.
According to the judge, Hueter’s request for a TRO and injunction enjoining ASG from enforcing its Jan. 30th declaration is “thus moot”.
Additionally, “Hueter is asking for injunctive relief from restrictions that have been superseded. In short, he has obtained the relief he seeks in this emergency posture.”
McFadden ruled that plaintiff’s motion for TRO and Preliminary Injunction “will therefore be denied as moot”.
A footnote in McFadden opinion points out that federal and American Samoa defendants “raise various other infirmities” in Hueter’s claims. However, the Court need not consider these arguments now, given the need to decide Hueter’s emergency motion promptly.
In connection with this decision, McFadden also issued an order last Friday addressing plaintiff’s second amended complaint, which was filed after the federal and American Samoa defendants’ motions to dismiss the complaint and also objections to the request for TRO and preliminary injunction.
“There are some statements in the Plaintiff’s filings that might suggest that the Plaintiff intends his later complaint to incorporate claims raised or defendants sued in his earlier complaint,” the judge noted.
“But expecting the Defendants and this Court to respond to allegations across various complaints is not appropriate,” said McFadden, noting that the court construes the Plaintiff’s second-amended complaint to be the only operative complaint.
Accordingly, the federal defendants’ pending motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s first-amended complaint, “is now moot and will be denied without prejudice”.
The court ordered that the defendants’ obligation to respond to the plaintiff’s second- amended complaint “will be held in abeyance until the Court orders otherwise.”
And if the plaintiff wishes to file a third-amended complaint, the court ordered that he must file on or before Mar. 26th.
Early last week, Hueter offered to federal and American Samoa defendants “mediation via the Medication Center of the Pacific” — a non profit group in Honolulu — to reach a resolution in his lawsuit. But the defendants declined the offer.
The US “Department of the Interior respectfully declines the offer to mediate,” was the response to Hueter from Assistant US Attorney, Katherine Palmer-Ball, representing the Chief Justice and the Acting US Interior Secretary.
“The American Samoa Government and the ASG parties also decline your suggestion of mediation,” said the separate response to Hueter from Cathy A. Hinger, a partner with the law firm Womble Bond Dickingson LLP, representing the American Samoa defendants including current and former ASG officials.
Hueter shared with the local media and others, the defendants’ response to his offer for mediation, which is not included in federal court records.
(Samoa News notes the ASG defendants in the High Court of American Samoa case had also declined Hueter’s offer of mediation last year.