U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear case of birthright citizenship


The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case on Monday that sought to challenge the lack of birthright citizenship in American Samoa and overturn racist legal precedents that have been used to justify different treatment for residents of U.S. territories compared with those in U.S. states.

John Fitisemanu, a Utah resident and lead plaintiff in the Fitisemanu v. United States case, said in a press release that he was deeply disappointed by the court’s decision.

“I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay my taxes like everyone else. But because of a discriminatory federal law, I am not recognized as a U.S. citizen,” he said. Like other people born in American Samoa, Fitisemanu is a U.S. national and must go through a naturalization process in order to receive U.S. citizenship.

But the court’s decision not to hear the Fitisemanu case was met with relief from top American Samoan political leaders who had urged the justices to let the lower court’s decision stand.

The Insular Cases are a series of legal decisions regarding U.S. territories that established the U.S. Constitution doesn’t fully extend to residents of the territories. The Fitisemanu case sought to overturn the rulings in part because they’re rooted in racism, with justices referring to the “alien races” living in U.S. territories. The same court that wrote the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that enshrined the “separate but equal” doctrine justifying racial segregation is also behind the Insular Cases.

However, the cases also are seen by many Indigenous peoples in the territories as a form of protection of their unique customs — traditions that might be challenged if the rulings were to be overturned.

Michael Williams, an attorney who represents the government of American Samoa and its non-voting House delegate Congresswoman Aumua Amata Radewagen, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.

“We view this as a tremendous victory for American Samoa. It’s the second time we’ve won this lawsuit,” Williams said, referring to a similar lawsuit in 2014. “We hope it’s the last time.”

Radewagen said in a press release that the U.S. Supreme Court “chose to respect the self-determination of the people of American Samoa, and the emphasis our people place on preserving our Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way).”

“Our people value American Samoa’s right of self-determination, with great love for the United States as expressed in our people’s high rate of service to the country,” she said.

Dan Aga, who leads the American Samoa Office of Political Status and Constitutional Review, said the territorial government doesn’t support the racism behind the Insular Cases but worried that overturning them could threaten traditional practices such as the territory’s communal land ownership system.

“A case like this represented an existential threat to our way of life,” he said.