PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
FALEOMAVAEGA: AMERICAN SAMOA NEEDS FEDERAL COURT
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (Samoa News, Jan. 2) – American Samoa Congressman Eni Faleomavaega announced over the weekend that he has serious concerns regarding two recent United States Federal Court decisions and the implications of these decisions on the lack of a federal district court in American Samoa.
The two cases, U.S. v. Lee (9th Circuit Court of Appeals) and US v. Gurr (DC Circuit Court of Appeals), addressed the issues of whether federal jurisdiction and venue over federal crimes committed in American Samoa was proper in the federal district courts in both Hawaii and Washington, DC.
"In each of these cases, the Courts held that American Samoa's courts do not have jurisdiction over violations of federal laws of the United States," Faleomavaega said. "According to these decisions, the US district courts have exclusive, original jurisdiction over federal crimes in the territory of American Samoa. My continuing concern is that, because we do not have a federal court presence in American Samoa, our people are physically taken from the Territory by FBI officials for prosecution in federal courts in Hawaii and in Washington, DC," the congressman said. "I remain concerned that our Sixth Amendment rights (of a trial by one's peers) may be compromised by a trial before jurors who may have no understanding of our people or who may have a bias against Samoans."
In either case, Faleomavaega said the people of American Samoa are at risk of not receiving a fair trial in a federal forum. Also, he said the cost for the families of these defendants for travel and lodging in order to support their loved ones in far away places is tremendous and unnecessary.
"It is because of these jurisdictional conflicts that House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo and Ranking Member Nick Rahall have joined me in requesting the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study all aspects of the judiciary system here in American Samoa," Faleomavaega said.
The congressman said the GAO has recently confirmed that they will be conducting the study of the local judiciary system in 2007.
"This important study will shed more light on the issue of whether or not American Samoa should have a federal district court with limited jurisdiction or whether to confer federal jurisdiction on the High Court of American Samoa to hear these types of cases," he said. "The GAO will also review how the Department of the Interior administers the territory where there are conflicting issues on the right to matai titles and communal lands."
Faleomaveaga said that while the Lee and Gurr cases make it obvious that the federal government has jurisdiction here in the territory, "I believe that we have the responsibility to guide the development of a federal court presence here to allow us to address the obvious shortcomings of the current judicial system and to ensure that our people are treated fairly."
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