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OP ED: Is the Attorney General Trying to Disbar Off-Island Attorneys?

The Attorney General's Office claims they are not trying to disbar off-island attorneys, crying “fake news,” but their actions speak louder than their words. Here is their official position, as stated in a signed declaration written by Deputy Attorney General Roy Hall:

“It is in the interest of the due administration of justice in the Territory of American Samoa that all attorneys practicing law in American Samoa are in compliance with the High Court Rules of Practice Rule 137, that the attorney be a resident of the Territory of American Samoa” (emphasis added).

He goes on to target off-island attorneys who are members in good standing of the American Samoa Bar Association, including myself. He claims we “are not residents of American Samoa,” so must be treated as if we don’t have a license and are no longer members of the bar. This means that if you are an attorney who moves off-island, the Attorney General says that you can no longer practice law in American Samoa.

We do agree with the AG’s statements in the news that Rule 137 does not mention anything about disbarring attorneys or taking away law licenses. That is why it is so shocking and disturbing that the AG has filed their motion seeking to do exactly that. Normally, we would treat this as mere legal posturing. But this comes from the Attorney General – the highest legal officer in the territory – making a claim that affects 2/3 of the bar association that lives off-island. We must take it seriously, even if we think they are wrong.

The risk to off-island attorneys is real. Losing their license must be reported in every state where the attorney practices, affecting background checks, new licenses, and even job applications. Worse, they could face criminal charges for unauthorized practice of law if they help someone on-island. Guess who makes that prosecution decision? The AG’s Office.

Off-island attorneys provide an important function. Two years ago, Sen. Togiola T.A. Tulafono spoke about the severe shortage of attorneys, and it has only gotten worse. The AG's and Public Defender’s offices have been nearly empty for years, forcing the government to use private attorneys for almost everything, from lawsuits to defending criminal cases. Today, it is nearly impossible to find a private attorney without a conflict of interest involving the American Samoa Government.  

The AG's motion was filed in a case where we sought help from all the private practice attorneys on-island. Every single one of them had a conflict of interest or was unavailable. If licensed off-island attorneys are barred from practicing, many people in the Territory, including the victim in this case, will be deprived of their right to legal representation. That’s simply wrong.

In the last decade since I left American Samoa, I'm proud to have helped dozens of people on legal issues, from setting up new businesses, creating nonprofits, handling tricky tax matters, and even dealing with the death of a loved one. All my clients shared one thing in common - they tried on-island attorneys first and were turned away. This isn't the lawyers’ or the courts’ fault. It's just the reality of having so few attorneys and so much need.

Perhaps the Attorney General can clear this up and explain their position. It’s a simple question – can off-island members of the bar still practice law in American Samoa? If so, then let’s work with the Courts and the Bar Association to put together a committee to help modernize the courts and improve access to legal help for everyone in American Samoa.

Legal help from an attorney is a cornerstone of the justice system. It's time for immediate clarity, collaboration, and a commitment to protecting the right of every resident of the territory to legal counsel. The people of American Samoa are watching closely to see whether the Attorney General will choose to restrict access to legal help, or work with us to expand it and ensure justice for all in American Samoa.

— Sean Morrison

Member in Good Standing of the American Samoa Bar Association

Former Assistant Attorney General