V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett is calling her colleagues’ attention to a recent ruling by a federal appeals court in a case involving the citizenship status of people originating from a U.S. Insular area – in this case, American Samoa – and now living in the continental United States.
Plaskett criticized the June 15 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. On that day the court reversed a ruling from the Utah District Court in the case of Fitisemanu v. the United States.
Plaintiffs in the case were Samoan natives who moved to the mainland, only to discover they could not vote in local elections because they were considered non-citizen U.S. nationals. The judge in the lower court said that plaintiffs – John Fitisemanu, Paul Tuli, Rosavita Tuli and the Southern Utah Pacific Islander Coalition – were covered by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and were U.S. citizens.
The case was appealed by U.S. Justice Department and elected officials from Samoa. A 10th Circuit panel of three judges overruled the lower court, citing a controversial body of laws passed in the early 1900s called the Insular Cases. U.S. Insular areas include American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.
According to a summary of the June 15 majority opinion, appearing on the legal website Justia, the lower court’s invocation of the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment was not supported by constitutional text or by Supreme Court precedent.
“Such consideration falls under the purview of Congress,” the appellate court opinion said, according to the Justia summary.
Plaskett called the ruling disappointing and suggested that the 10th Circuit panel relied on its reading of the Insular cases to reach their opinion.
“If American Samoa is not ‘in the United States’ for purposes of the Citizenship Clause, then neither is Guam, neither is the Northern Mariana Islands, neither is Puerto Rico, and neither is the U.S. Virgin Islands. People in the territories who have lived their entire lives as U.S. citizens could therefore face the prospect of having their citizenship revoked by legislative whim,” the delegate said.
Plaskett is listed as an intervenor in Fitisemanu v. United States, along with a long list of advocates for equal justice for Insular citizens; among them the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, the Samoan Federation of America, Inc., the V.I. Bar Association, former V.I. Delegate Donna Christensen, former V.I. Govs. John deJongh Jr. and Kenneth Mapp, and former Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello.
In a June 18 statement, Plaskett also called for the formation of a task force to address inequities affecting citizens of Insular areas like the ones laid out in the Fitisemanu case.
“H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, contains my amendment to establish a congressional task force to review federal voting rights and election issues facing U.S. territories. It would require the task force to make recommendations to Congress on providing U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. territories with equitable voting representation in Congress, voting rights in presidential elections, and full and equal inclusion under federal voting and election laws,” the delegate said.
The president and founder of a nonprofit advocacy group, Equally American, also criticized the ruling. Attorney Neil Weare said the panel ignored the guidance offered by the Supreme Court for cases like Fitisemanu. “Last year the Supreme Court made clear that the Insular Cases should not be expanded beyond their limited scope, yet here the 10th Circuit did just that to deny the right of citizenship to people born in U.S. territories,” Weare said.
If the Samoan plaintiffs in the Utah case want to continue their legal fight, they can either ask for a review of the June 15 ruling by all justices serving in the 10th Circuit or they can go to the Supreme Court, Weare said in a statement released by Equally American.