Congressman Faleomavaega announced today that he has introduced the bill H.R. 2789 to add additional judges and to confer certain federal jurisdiction on the High Court of American Samoa. If passed, the bill will give the High Court of American Samoa jurisdiction over any criminal case arising under any federal law applicable to American Samoa in which the crime takes place in American Samoa.
The High Court of American Samoa currently has limited federal jurisdiction over such matters which include food safety, protection of animals, conservation, and maritime issues. However, if a person violates federal criminal law, he is arrested by FBI officials in the territory and then transferred either to Hawaii or Washington D.C. for prosecution before a federal district court. Over the years, the current system has caused tremendous financial hardships on persons arrested and their families.
In July 2006, Congressman Faleomavaega with the former Chairman Richard Pombo of the Natural Resources Committee, and Ranking Member Congressman Nick Rahall, requested a review of American Samoa Government’s (ASG) judiciary system by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In June 2008, the GAO submitted a report with its findings on the matter. The GAO report suggested three options for consideration by ASG and the Congress. The options were:
(1) Establish a federal court in American Samoa under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution,
(2) Establish a federal district court in American Samoa as a division of the District of Hawaii, or
(3) Expand the federal jurisdiction of the High Court of American Samoa.
The GAO identified the third option as potentially having the least-cost and eliminates the threat of a federal court to adjudicate cases involving Matai titles and communal lands.
In September 2008, the Insular Affairs Subcommittee held a hearing with Department of Interior (DOI) officials and ASG leaders, who also submitted written testimonies, to discuss the findings in the GAO report. The primary concern was that establishing a federal court in the territory may pose a threat to the current process whereby the High Court would consider cases involving Matai titles and communal land system. In other words, any changes to be made to the judicial structure for adjudicating federal laws must not interfere with the local system for deciding Matai titles and communal land disputes.
“In essence, H.R. 2789 establishes a judicial structure similar to the third option identified in the GAO report and has also been recommended by ASG leaders. What this bill does is it adds more justices to the High Court; give the High Court additional jurisdiction to try violations of federal criminal laws applicable to American Samoa; and provides for the appointment of a federal prosecutor to prosecute federal criminal cases before the High Court. The local judiciary system, whereby Matai titles and communal land cases are tried in the High Court, remains unchanged,” Faleomavaega said.
“My hope is to continue to work with our local leaders and members of Congress to address any other issues that may be of concern or that they would like to see included in this bill,” Faleomavaega concluded.