Hueter v. Kruse

Decision Date17 December 2021
Docket NumberCiv. 21-00226 JMS-KJM
CourtUnited States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Court (Hawaii)




Plaintiffs residents of American Samoa, bring this pro se action against Debra Haaland, the United States Secretary of the Interior Lealaialoa Fritz Michael Kruse, Chief Justice of the High Court of American Samoa; and James L. McGuire, a private individual (collectively, Defendants). Plaintiffs allege a variety of claims arising from a purported illegal ex parte communication between Justice Kruse and McGuire (collectively, “AS Defendants) during an underlying case in the High Court of American Samoa. They seek injunctive relief and damages against the AS Defendants, and they ask this court to compel the Secretary of the Interior to exercise her plenary authority over American Samoa to prevent the AS Defendants from perpetrating any additional violations of Plaintiffs' rights. Plaintiffs also seek a declaration that they have ownership rights over the land and water in Alega, a village in American Samoa.

Currently before the court is a Motion to Dismiss filed by the United States on behalf of Defendants Justice Kruse and the Secretary of the Interior (collectively, “Federal Defendants), ECF No. 85; and a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant McGuire, ECF No. 136. The United States moves for dismissal on a variety of grounds, arguing that (1) Plaintiffs lack standing; (2) the court lacks personal jurisdiction over Justice Kruse; (3) the court should abstain from hearing the case under the Younger abstention doctrine; and (4) Plaintiffs have failed to state any claim for relief. McGuire moves to dismiss solely on the ground that the court lacks personal jurisdiction over him.

Analysis of each of these questions is complicated by the unique status of American Samoa, which is the only inhabited territory under the jurisdiction of the United States that is both unincorporated and unorganized. After careful review, the court concludes that Plaintiffs have standing, but that the court lacks personal jurisdiction over both AS Defendants. Plaintiffs have also failed to state any cognizable claim for relief against any of the Defendants. And further, the court must abstain from hearing the claim for declaratory relief according to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). For these reasons, and as set forth in more detail to follow, the Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED. Because amendment would be futile, the case is DISMISSED with prejudice.


This case stems from Plaintiffs' dissatisfaction with certain aspects of an underlying legal case in the High Court of American Samoa, HCLT # 28-2020. The court therefore briefly sets forth pertinent facts about that underlying case.[1] In addition, because American Samoa's unique status as an unincorporated, unorganized territory is relevant to the questions raised by this case, the court begins by providing background on the legal status of American Samoa.

A. Legal Status of American Samoa
1. Governance of American Samoa

The United States formally annexed American Samoa in 1900. The territory was administered by the United States Navy until 1951, when authority was transferred to the Department of Interior, where it remains today. See Exec. Order No. 10264 (June 29, 1951).

American Samoa, as well as the United States' other inhabited territories—Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (“CNMI”), Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—are considered “unincorporated” territories. See Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 279-80 (1901). This means that the territories are not intended for incorporation into the union as states; they are instead “possessions”“belonging to” but “not a part of the United States.” See id. at 279-80, 287.[2] Because the territories are legally designated “possessions” of the United States, they are not considered to have independent sovereignty under United States law; instead, they are subject to the plenary power of Congress.[3] Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, 579 U.S. 59, 71 (2016). For the same reason, the United States Constitution does not apply of its own force in the territories—save for the most “fundamental” constitutional rights, including those to life, liberty, and property. Downes, 182 U.S. at 279, 283. Inhabitants of the territories cannot vote in federal elections and they have only non-voting representation in Congress. See Government Accountability Office, American Samoa: Issues Associated with Some Federal Court Options 4 (2008) [hereinafter “GAO Report”].[4]

In contrast, Guam, CNMI, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands are considered “organized” territories—meaning Congress has enacted legislation that establishes and delegates certain authority to civilian governments in each of these territories, including executive, legislative, and judicial branches. See, e.g., 48 U.S.C. § 1421 (Guam); 48 U.S.C. § 1801 (CNMI); 48 U.S.C. § 1541 (Virgin Islands); 48 U.S.C. § 731 (Puerto Rico). These legislative acts also make most inhabitants of these territories U.S. citizens and extend most provisions of the United States Constitution to the territories. See e.g., Davis v. Guam, 2017 WL 930825, at *12 (D. Guam Mar. 8, 2017), aff'd, 932 F.3d 822 (9th Cir. 2019) (citing 48 U.S.C. § 1421b(u)).

Congress has never enacted comparable legislation for American Samoa, making American Samoa the only inhabited territory that remains “unorganized.” See Fitisemanu v. United States, 1 F.4th 862, 875 n.15 (10th Cir. 2021). Consequently, inhabitants of American Samoa are not U.S. citizens, but U.S. nationals. Tuaua v. United States, 788 F.3d 300, 301 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (Tuaua II). Further, because Congress has not extended any provisions of the U.S. Constitution to the territory, inhabitants of American Samoa are “entitled under the principles of the Constitution to be protected in life, liberty, and property . . . [but they are] not possessed of the political rights of citizens of the United States.” Id. at 308 (quoting Downes, 182 U.S. at 283).[5] And, most significantly for present purposes, Congress has not created or delegated authority to a territorial government in American Samoa. Fitisemanu, 1 F.4th at 875 n.15 (stating that absent organizing legislation, American Samoa is “especially subject to American political control”). Instead, American Samoa remains under the “plenary authority” of the Secretary of the Interior. Corp. of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Hodel, 830 F.2d 374, 375 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (Hodel II); Exec. Order. 10264 (vesting the Secretary of the Interior with “all civil, judicial, and military powers” of government in American Samoa).

The people of American Samoa adopted their own Constitution by referendum, which was approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1967. See Tuaua v. United States, 951 F.Supp.2d 88, 90 (D.D.C. 2013). In 1977, the Secretary permitted the governor to be selected by popular vote. Id. And in 1983, Congress passed legislation specifying that any amendment or modification to the constitution of American Samoa, “as approved by the Secretary of the Interior . . . may be made only by an Act of Congress.” 48 U.S.C. § 1662a.

2. American Samoa Judicial System

American Samoa's unique status as an unorganized, unincorporated territory also creates peculiarities in the territory's judicial system. American Samoa's judiciary consists of a district court and a High Court. Am. Samoa Const. art. III, § 1; Am. Samoa Code (“ASC”) tit. 3. The district court adjudicates minor civil cases, such as small claims, and minor criminal offenses, such as traffic violations. The High Court, meanwhile, consists of four divisions—the Trial Division; the Land and Titles Division; the Family, Drug, and Alcohol Division; and the Appellate Division. ASC §§ 3.0207, 3.0501. The Family, Drug, and Alcohol Division has jurisdiction over “all matters affecting families, from juvenile offenses to domestic violence and adoptions to divorce and child support.” Id. § 3.0501. The Land and Titles Division has exclusive jurisdiction over all controversies related to land. Id. § 3.0208(b). The Trial Division is a court of “general jurisdiction” with “the power to hear any matter not otherwise provided for by statute.” Id. § 3.0208(a). And the Appellate Division “shall have jurisdiction to review, on appeal, final decisions of the trial and land and titles divisions of the High Court, ” as well as certain decisions of the district court and certain administrative proceedings. Id. § 3.0208(c).

The entire territorial court system is “under the administration and supervision” of a Chief Justice. Id. § 3.0102. The Chief Justice sits on the High Court along with an Associate Justice and a number of Associate Judges. The Chief Justice and Associate Justice are law-trained. Id. § 3.1001(a). The Associate Judges are not required to have legal training, but are instead “appointed based on their knowledge of Samoan culture and tradition.” GAO Report at 24.

The judicial branch, like the rest of American Samoa's government, is under the plenary authority of the Secretary of the Interior. As such, the Secretary of the Interior “appoint[s] a Chief Justice of American Samoa and such Associate Justices as he may deem necessary” and may remove them for cause. Am. Sam. Const. art. III, § 3; ASC § 3.1001(b). The Associate Judges, meanwhile, are appointed by the Governor of American Samoa, ASC § 3.1004(a),...

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