CNN reports, “A federal judge from Utah has ruled that American Samoans are U.S. citizens by birth and should be issued new passports reflecting that.”
The announcement Thursday came from U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups’ decision that favored plaintiffs John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli after they filed a lawsuit in 2018. They argued that as American Samoans, they deserved all rights afforded to U.S. citizens under the 14th amendment.
“This court is not imposing ‘citizenship by judicial fiat.’ The action is required by the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment as construed and applied by Supreme Court precedent,” wrote Judge Clark Waddoups in the US District Court for the District of Utah.
“Further, Plaintiffs are American Samoans. They brought this action seeking to realize their rights to citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment,” he added. It’s unclear whether Waddoups’ order applies to American Samoans beyond Utah.
“It’s an overwhelming victory but it’s the first step in what will likely be several more steps,” said Neil Weare, attorney for the plaintiffs and the president and founder of the non-profit Equally American.
The Supreme Court in 2016 declined to hear a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in which the court ruled that the Constitution does not confer citizenship on those born in American Samoa. The Utah District Court isn’t bound by the D.C. District Court ruling, which is why Waddoups was able to issue a different decision. It does however have the potential of creating a circuit split if a different court affirms the decision, according to Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
Neil Weare, an attorney with Equality America who represented the three plaintiffs, said the ruling is monumental.
“This is a big day for the Constitution and it’s a big day for the American Samoan community that has been marginalized in Utah as a result of these congressional actions over the years,” he said.
Those born in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Marianas, all receive American citizenship at birth based on statues in Congress. American Samoa was named a U.S. territory since 1900, but are not afforded the same rights and are labeled U.S. nationals.
American Samoans living in Utah brought the suit in 2018, and claim that being categorized as “non-citizen nationals” costs them certain employment opportunities, the ability to vote and other privileges despite paying U.S. taxes.
Their passports are also categorized differently, reading: “The bearer is a United States national and not a United States citizen.”
“It doesn’t feel very good when the federal government says you’re American, but not quite the same as other Americans, just a little bit different. Just being able to say they’re real American citizens, I think that goes a long way, in addition to being able to vote,” Weare said.
Waddoups’ ruling orders the government to issue new passports to Fitisemanu Pale and Rosavita.
The US Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.