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Plaintiffs file response to lower court decision in citizenship case

John Fitisemanu

Pago Pago, AMERICA SAMOA — Plaintiffs in the US citizenship case have asked a federal appeal’s court to “affirm” a lower court decision to grant citizenship to persons born in American Samoa, which is “in the United States” within the meaning of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs, who are three American Samoans — John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli — residing in Utah, filed their response brief Tuesday with the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Denver, Colorado.

As previously reported by Samoa News, US District Court Judge Clark Waddoups of the federal court in Salt Lake City declared — among other things — in a Dec. 12, 2019 decision that “Persons born in American Samoa are citizens of the United States by virtue of the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Waddoups sided with the plaintiffs, who made similar arguments, in a case closely watched both locally and in the U.S.

Last month the defendants — the US State Department, along with the Secretary of State and other senior officials — and the Intervenors — American Samoa Government and Congresswoman Aumua Amata — appealed Waddoups’ decision to the 10th Circuit Court. (See Samoa News edition Apr. 15th and Apr. 23rd for details.)

The defendants, in their brief said this case presents the question whether American Samoa — a territory not destined for Statehood and known as an “unincorporated territory” — is “in the United States” for purposes of the Citizenship Clause.

“Constitutional text, [U.S] Supreme Court precedent, and historical practice all confirm that the answer is no,” according to the federal government’s brief, noting that the US Constitution itself draws a distinction between “the United States” and “Territory or other Property belonging to” it.

In response the plaintiffs — which include the Utah nonprofit group, Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition — disagree, arguing that the Citizenship Clause declares that those born “in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

However, the plaintiffs argued that a federal statute purports to deny birthright citizenship to the plaintiffs because they were born American Samoa — a US territory.

They explained that this federal statute provides that persons born in American Samoa — unlike those born in any State, District, or other Territory of the U.S — are “nationals, but not citizens,” of the U.S.

In this case, “[t]he government does not dispute that American Samoa is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” according to the plaintiffs citing previous court filings.

“The dispositive question thus is whether American Samoa is “in the United States” within the meaning of the Citizenship Clause. The answer to that question — as the [Salt Lake City] district court correctly held — is yes,” plaintiffs argued.

Additionally the text, structure, and history of the Citizenship Clause, and US Supreme Court decisions interpreting it, all demonstrate that as a U.S. Territory, American Samoa is “in the United States.”

Indeed, the phrase “the United States” has long been understood to “designate the whole . . . of the American empire,” including “States and territories”, according to the plaintiffs.

“At the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s adoption, as now, the plain meaning of “in the United States” is within those geographical areas over which the United States exercises sovereignty,” the plaintiffs argued.

“Because the Citizenship Clause’s Framers surely understood “the United States” to include all of its many Territories, and because American Samoa is a U.S. Territory, the Court should affirm,” the plaintiffs said.

They declared that the “plain meaning “in the United States” includes U.S. Territories such as American Samoa.”

According to the plaintiffs the State Department, in its appeal brief “complains about the scope of the district court’s injunction, which it interprets as applying nationwide.”

Plaintiffs argued that it didn’t request a nationwide injunction and do not object if the appeal’s court wishes to clarify that the injunction applies only to plaintiffs.

The defendants had argued that, among other things, a federal district court decision on the US citizenship case is too broad, overboard and ignores the wishes of American Samoa’s elected officials and US nationals living in the territory.

In response to ASG and the Congresswoman’s appeal brief, the plaintiffs points out that, the “Intervenors’ unsupported assertions that numerous aspects of fa’a Samoa violate fundamental constitutional principles should not dissuade this Court from applying the Citizenship Clause to American Samoa.”

According to the plaintiffs the Intervenors also argue that American Samoans’ right of “self- determination” would be undermined by application of the Citizenship Clause.

Intervenors contend that ruling for plaintiffs would “directly conflict[ ] with the will of the American Samoan people,” and represent “a particularly egregious and ‘irregular intrusion into the autonomy of Samoan democratic decision-making.’ ” (referring to a quote from the Tuaua citizenship case, which was dismissed by the federal court in Washington D.C.)

“This argument fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a written constitution. While American Samoa’s future political status remains open to Congress and American Samoa’s elected leaders to decide, the question whether the Citizenship Clause applies on sovereign U.S. soil is not,” the plaintiffs argued.

And that is “because the Fourteenth Amendment “put th[e] question of citizenship . . beyond the legislative power.”

Plaintiffs also said that the Intervenors now claim — for the first time on appeal — that American Samoa is not “subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” Plaintiffs argued that the Intervenors never raised their argument in the district court “and it is therefore forfeited”.

According to the plaintiffs, Intervenors’ argument that American Samoa is not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States because it is a “significantly self-governing” Territory is “meritless”.

The plaintiffs also addressed the Tuaua decision, which the Intervenors rely heavily on. According to the plaintiff the Tuaua decision “was wrong and poorly reasoned, and this Court should reject it just as the district court did.”

They further argued that the D.C. federal appeal’s court opinion fails to substantively engage with the text, structure, history, or relevant precedent.