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Gov says DOI asks AS to look into the appointments of its chief & associate judges

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga says the US Interior Department has asked American Samoa to look into the current practice where the Secretary of Interior appoints the chief justice and associate justice of the High Court.

The governor made the revelation during the recent American Samoa Bar Association gubernatorial forum at the Gov. Rex Lee Auditorium, a week ago — where the issues of justices and judges were raised.

According to the territory’s constitution, the Secretary of Interior shall appoint a chief justice of American Samoa and such associate justices, as he/she may deem necessary.

On the other hand, the chief justice recommends to the governor local judges, referred to as Samoan judges, to serve on the bench in the High Court and District Court. The governor then nominates these individuals, who are subject to Senate confirmation only.

During the gubernatorial forum, the candidates for governor were informed judges and justices of the Judicial Branch are appointed for life and are not subject to any local or practical review of their conduct while on the bench.

“Do you believe that judges and justices should face some sort of review of their conduct? If so, what would you suggest?” the candidates were asked.

Incumbent Gov. Lolo said he believed “we should have a public review of their conduct and their qualifications,” adding the appointment of local judges follows that process, referring to the local judges being recommended by the chief justice to the governor, who then makes the appointment to the Senate for confirmation. “That in itself is a public forum where they can review the quality of the judge and make sure that we have the right person for the job.”

For chief justice and associate justices, Lolo reminded the audience that their salaries are paid by DOI. He then revealed that during his recent discussions with the Secretary of Interior, “the judges are one issue she brought up for us to look into.” Lolo said he has assigned this matter to the ASG Office of Political Status, Constitution and Federal Relations.

“One of their duties is to explain to our people, the organization of the local government including the judicial branch and the judges,” Lolo explained. “So their job is to make our people understand, then we will prepare ourselves to appoint our own judges, confirmed by our people, through the Senate or both houses.”

And “that is the process that we have today [for local judges] to make sure that we have the right people on the job,” he said, noting, “That’s why we suggest to the public whenever there are confirmation hearings for judges — go there and voice your opinion.”

Lolo said, “Don’t wait until they act and serve and then you complain. And that’s why it is important that they go through some public scrutiny to make sure their qualities are being revealed, their lifestyles are in public, and they are under the limelight and make sure they answer to the people.”

In his response, candidate for governor Faoa Aitofele Sunia first noted, that the attorney who came up with the question “is very brave.” 

He then pointed out that justices of the Supreme Court of the United States are appointed for life. However, there’s still an argument over whether “you [can] review the performance of the justice and if they are not doing so well, [then] replace them.”

“I think the trick is to find the best man you can find first time around and put him in there,” Faoa said. “For our justice, they’ve been there for a while. And bless their souls — they’ve been doing a great job as far as I’m concerned, considering the circumstances.”

“I would leave it the way it is,” he said. “I don’t think we have a whole pool of people to pick from if you want to change one of the justices.”

Candidate for governor Tuika Tuika noted the Secretary of Interior appoints the justices, and can remove them for cause.

“I would recommend no Samoan or a palagi married to a Samoan should be appointed.  It’s a conflict of interest, this is small Island and the court too, is corrupted,” he said.