claims, although necessarily intertwined, rest on two separate rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The first is that the government shall not take property for public use without compensation. The second is that no one shall be deprived of property without due process of law.
1. The "Takings" Claim
The takings clause is a constitutional limitation on the sovereign's inherent power to usurp private property for its own use. United States v. General Motors Corp., 323 U.S. 373, 377, 65 S. Ct. 357, 359, 89 L. Ed. 311 (1945); United States v. Jones, 109 U.S. 513, 518-19, 3 S. Ct. 346, 349-50, 27 L. Ed. 1015 (1883); Kohl et al. v. United States, 91 (1 Otto) U.S. 367, 372-73, 23 L. Ed. 449 (1875). It requires the government to exercise the power of eminent domain only for a public purpose, and only if just compensation is paid to the property owner. However, "the question of what constitutes a taking for the purposes of the Fifth Amendment has proved to be a problem of considerable difficulty." Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104, 123, 98 S. Ct. 2646, 2659, 57 L. Ed. 2d 631 (1978).
In dicta, the Supreme Court has recognized that a court judgment could effect an unconstitutional taking, if the court's decision worked an "unpredictable," "unforeseeable" or "sudden" change in the law that resulted in the transfer of private property to the state. See Bonelli Cattle Co. v. Arizona, 414 U.S. 313, 331, 94 S. Ct. 517, 528, 38 L. Ed. 2d 526 (1973), overruled on other grounds, Oregon v. Corvallis Sand & Gravel Co., 429 U.S. 363, 97 S. Ct. 582, 50 L. Ed. 2d 550 (1977); Hughes v. Washington, 389 U.S. 290, 297-98, 88 S. Ct. 438, 442-443, 19 L. Ed. 2d 530 (1967) (Stewart, J., concurring).
The Court has also stated that "gross" or "arbitrary" error by a state court may amount to an unconstitutional taking for the state without due process. Roberts v. City of New York, 295 U.S. 264, 277, 55 S. Ct. 689, 691, 79 L. Ed. 1429 (1935).
Thus, the Supreme Court has intimated, without ever squarely holding, that a court may effect an unconstitutional taking by force of judgment when it arbitrarily reverses precedent and awards property to the state. The Supreme Court has also recognized that a legislative body effects an unconstitutional taking when it transfers property, without any justifying public purpose, from one private party to another. Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 241, 104 S. Ct. 2321, 2329, 81 L. Ed. 2d 186 (1984); Thompson v. Consolidated Gas Corp., 300 U.S. 55, 80, 57 S. Ct. 364, 376, 81 L. Ed. 510 (1937). It does not necessarily follow, however, that a court effects an unconstitutional taking when its judgment results in the transfer of private property to another private party, even if based on erroneous reversal of precedent.
Unlike the case at bar, Bonelli and Hughes involved judicial decisions resulting in property accruing to the state, and not to another private party. Similarly, the present case may be distinguished from Hawaii Housing and Thompson, as those cases dealt with the acts of legislative or quasi-legislative bodies, and not courts. These distinctions are significant, because unlike a legislature, a court allocates property between individual private parties almost every time it acts in a civil case. In many of those cases, a court must reconsider the applicable precedents. To paraphrase Justice Holmes, the court could not go on if to some extent values incident to property could not be diminished without paying for every change in legal precedent.
As noted above, the takings clause is a constitutional limitation on the sovereign's power of eminent domain. A court resolving a title dispute between private parties is not exercising that power, but rather is analyzing precedent and other rules, and declaring the rights of the parties. See Chang, Unraveling Robinson v. Ariyoshi: Can Courts "Take" Property ?, 2 Hawaii L.Rev. 57, 68 (1979), and sources cited therein. Only where the property is taken by a court for the public, e.g., Chicago, Burlington and Quincy R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 17 S. Ct. 581, 41 L. Ed. 979 (1897); Robinson v. Ariyoshi, 441 F. Supp. 559 (D.Haw.1977), aff'd, 753 F.2d 1468 (9th Cir.1985), appeal filed see 474 U.S. 1018, 106 S. Ct. 565, 88 L. Ed. 2d 550, or by the legislature for another private party, with or without a justifying public purpose, e.g., Hawaii Housing, supra, 467 U.S. at 241, 104 S. Ct. at 2329, is the takings clause implicated. It is not implicated where a court is refereeing a title dispute between two private parties.
If the Court accepted plaintiff's syllogism based on dicta in Hughes and Hawaii Housing, every judicially-resolved title dispute would be substantively reviewable under the takings clause to determine if the state court had arbitrarily or unforeseeably interpreted or reversed past precedent. Plaintiff's position would undermine one of the essential functions of the judiciary. "Simply put, courts do not 'take' because that would destroy their ability to resolve disputes. Courts do not 'take', they declare. If they were said to 'take', they could not effectively declare." Chang, supra, at 90. The Court concludes the takings clause is inapplicable to Reid, where a court simply determined the rights of two private parties concerning title to property.
The more difficult question remains, however, of whether the Reid rulings deprived plaintiff of property without due process by unexpectedly reversing precedent on which plaintiff had relied.
2. The Due Process Claim
Plaintiff's Count One also contends the Reid decisions deprived it of property without due process by failing to respect res judicata as established in the Nouata I and II cases. The Court reads plaintiff's complaint and pleadings concerning "res judicata" as encompassing the broad meaning of that term to include collateral estoppel or issue preclusion.
Because res judicata "is a rule of fundamental and substantial justice," Federated Department Stores, Inc. v. Moitie, 452 U.S. 394, 401, 101 S. Ct. 2424, 2429, 69 L. Ed. 2d 103 (1981), citing Hart Steel v. Railroad Supply Co., 244 U.S. 294, 299, 37 S. Ct. 506, 507, 61 L. Ed. 1148 (1917), plaintiff would have this Court hold that the High Court of American Samoa denied it due process by failing to apply the doctrine in the Reid case. Cf. Robinson, supra, 441 F. Supp. at 585; Sotomura v. County of Hawaii, 460 F. Supp. 473, 482 (D.Haw.1978). Plaintiff fails to cite, however, and this Court has not found, any Supreme Court decision that expressly holds that failure to apply res judicata is violative of the due process clauses of the Constitution.
Moreover, where, as here, a territorial court has specifically considered whether res judicata would be applicable to a question of territorial law, and rejected its applicability, Reid II, supra, this Court must respect that determination absent a showing that the territorial court acted unconstitutionally. See Oklahoma Packing Co. v. Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., 309 U.S. 4, 8, 60 S. Ct. 215, 217, 84 L. Ed. 537 (issue of whether judgment of a state court is res judicata is a question of state law); Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 96, 101 S. Ct. 411, 415, 66 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1980); Kremer v. Chemical Construction Corp., 456 U.S. 461, 482, 102 S. Ct. 1883, 1898, 72 L. Ed. 2d 262 (1982). Cf. Angel v. Bullington, 330 U.S. 183, 67 S. Ct. 657, 91 L. Ed. 832 (1947) (federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction must give res judicata effect to state court ruling on same issue). Under 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (1982), this Court is required to give full faith and credit to the judicial proceedings of state and territorial courts:
Such . . . proceedings . . . shall have the same full faith and credit in every court within the United States and its Territories and Possessions as they have by law or usage in the courts of such state, Territory or Possession from which they are taken.
Interpreting this statute as it applies to state court determinations of res judicata, the Supreme Court has said,
It has long been established that § 1738 does not allow federal courts to employ their own rules of res judicata in determining the effects of state judgments. Rather, it goes beyond the common law and commands a federal court to accept the rules chosen by the State from which the judgment is taken. . . . Congress has specifically required all federal courts to give preclusive effect to state-court judgments whenever the Courts of the State from which the judgments emerged would do so. . . .
Kremer, supra, 456 U.S. at 481-82, 102 S. Ct. at 1897-98. This Court could avoid the preclusive effect of the local court's determination only if the local court had failed to satisfy the minimum procedural requirements of due process. Id. at 481, 482-83, 102 S. Ct. at 1897, 1898. Given that the statute interpreted in Kremer is equally applicable to territorial courts as state courts, its holding would govern here.
Even if this Court agreed with plaintiff that the Reid decision was incorrect in its refusal to apply res judicata based on the Nouata cases, legal error alone does not violate due process. "It is firmly established that a merely erroneous decision given by a state court in the regular course of judicial proceedings does not deprive the unsuccessful party of property without due process of law." American Railway Express Co. v. Kentucky, 273 U.S. 269, 273, 47 S. Ct. 353, 354, 71 L. Ed. 639 (1927) (citations omitted). "The mere fact that a state court has rendered an erroneous decision on a question of state law, or has overruled principles or doctrines established by previous decisions on which a party relied, does not give rise to a [due process claim]. . . ." Brinkerhoff-Faris Co. v. Hill, 281 U.S. 673, 680, 50 S. Ct. 451, 454, 74 L. Ed. 1107 (1930). "The Fourteenth Amendment is not a guarantee that a trial shall be devoid of error." Roberts, supra, 295 U.S. at 277, 55 S. Ct. at 691. "The mere fact that the state court reversed a former decision to the prejudice of one party does not take away his property without due process of law." Tidal Oil Co. v. Flanagan, 263 U.S. 444, 450, 44 S. Ct. 197, 198, 68 L. Ed. 382 (1924).
While an erroneous reading of the law or unexpected reversal of precedent does not by itself violate the Constitution, a local court may not reach that result without according a party a full and fair hearing. A local court has the power to construe a statute or overrule a case, with the result that a party is deprived of property. But it may not do so "without [the party's] ever having had an opportunity to defend against the exaction." Brinkerhoff-Faris, supra, 281 U.S. at 679, 681-82, 50 S. Ct. at 453, 454. Thus, when reviewing a local court ruling that, through an upheaval in precedent, deprives a party of property, the Supreme Court has distinguished between substantive holdings and procedure.
Id.; see also American Railway Express, supra, 273 U.S. at 727-73, 47 S. Ct. at 354-55; cf. Kremer, supra, 456 U.S. at 481-82, 102 S. Ct. at 1897-98. There is no allegation here that plaintiff was denied procedural due process in the course of these particular proceedings. See infra, Part III(C).
Furthermore, even were this Court to review the substance of the territorial courts' holding in Reid, it would not conclude the Reid II decision was clearly erroneous in its refusal to apply res judicata. In assessing plaintiff's res judicata argument, the Reid courts undertook proper analytical steps, beginning with a determination of the meaning of the Nouata cases.
Reid II, supra. The trial court found the 1931 ruling ambiguous, and stated that Nouata I could not have held that the disputed land was freehold since the property did not appear on the land grant rolls. Reid I, supra. It next determined, based on cases older than Nouata I, that Malaeimi had been communal land. Based on a number of Samoan precedents recognizing a matai's right to grant life interests in communal land, and the right of a matai to permit continued use of communal land by his family following his death, the Reid trial court concluded the 1931 decision did not stand for the proposition that the portion of Malaeimi leased by the Mormon missionaries was the freehold or individual property of Salataima, but merely recognized that she had a life estate in the rents therefrom.
The Reid trial court determined the 1931 decision did not find that the widow held the land individually or in freehold. Therefore, Reid I concluded Nouata I could not constitute res judicata on that issue. Id. As to Nouata II, the Reid appeals court found that opinion did not stand for the proposition that Malaeimi was noncommunal property, but rather, merely stated that the Puailoa family believed, on the basis of the 1931 suit, that it was not communal.
Because Nouata II simply adjudged the family's right to reopen the 1931 case, it could not preclude a later challenge to title to Malaeimi. Reid II, supra.
The Reid opinions constitute a reasonable effort to understand an oral opinion delivered by a judge attempting to reconcile the Fa'a Samoa with western concepts of property in an era when justice was an informal affair in American Samoa. As such, it is not clearly erroneous or even an abuse of discretion. It certainly does not constitute the type of arbitrary, gross or "perverse" reading of the law which this Court would have to find in order to conclude that Reid deprived plaintiff of property without due process. See O'Neil, supra, 242 U.S. at 26-27; Demorest, supra, 321 U.S. at 42-43, 64 S. Ct. at 388; Roberts, supra, 295 U.S. at 277, 55 S. Ct. at 691.
In sum, plaintiff's fifth amendment claims must fail. Judicial resolutions of title disputes between two private parties do not implicate the takings clause of that amendment. This Court must respect a territorial court's determination that res judicata is inapplicable to issues of local law, unless that decision is constitutionally infirm. However, a mere error of law, even if one existed, would not deprive a party of property without due process. Therefore, Count One of plaintiff's complaint is dismissed for failure to state a claim.
B. The Equal Protection Claims
In Counts Two and Three, plaintiff alleges the High Court's reliance on Section 37.0204(b) of the American Samoa Code, supra, n. 3, barring the alienation of communal or individual land to persons of less than fifty percent Samoan blood, denied plaintiff equal protection of the law in violation of the fifth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution. Plaintiff further alleges the High Court's reliance on this statute violated its civil rights as guaranteed in 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-1983.
In the Reid cases, the High Court relied on the racially restrictive land statute only in its alternative holding in response to plaintiff's alternative theory of adverse possession. At the trial level, although the racial restriction was debated, the court's holding clearly rests on the grounds that the widow simply did not have title to Malaeimi to pass to the Church: "We further hold that the 1953 deed to the Church was void ab initio because it was an illegal conveyance, Malaeimi not being freehold land. We further hold that Malaeimi is and always has been the communal property of the Puailoa family." Reid I, supra. The Court also rejected the Church's adverse possession claim on the grounds that the Church had not been in possession of the land for the required statutory period. Id. It said nothing about the applicability of Section 37.0204(b) in the context of adverse possession.
The Reid appeals court also squarely based its opinion on the conclusion "that the land in dispute was the communal land of the Puailoa family at the time the widow attempted to deed it to the Mormon Church. . . ." Reid II, supra. It also rejected plaintiff's adverse possession claim on the ground that plaintiff could not rely on the widow's occupancy to "tack" on years to satisfy the statutory period. Id. In a footnote, the court added that in any case, the adverse possession statute was limited in its effect by the restraint on alienation of land to non-natives found in Section 37.0204(b). Id. at n. 1.
The Church petitioned for a rehearing in Reid, raising for the first time a constitutional challenge to Section 37.0204(b). See Reid II, Order of Dec. 11, 1984, at n. 1. The court denied the petition, stating again, "The trial court concluded, and we agreed, that Salataima had no title to pass." Id. Even if Malaeimi were individually-owned and not communally owned, the court added, title could not be conveyed to a foreign corporation because of Section 37.0204(b). Id. As to the adverse possession theory, the court reiterated its finding that the race restriction on land alienation limited the adverse possession statute, but added that plaintiff had also failed to demonstrate that it was in exclusive possession of the property during the statutory period. Id.
A review of these cases makes it clear that the Church was deprived of title to Malaeimi based on an interpretation of local law that the property was communal and therefore the widow had no title to pass. Therefore, as to the equal protection claim, plaintiff's complaint does not involve any substantial federal issue which would control the outcome of the underlying land dispute. Even if this Court were to strike down Section 37.0204 as unconstitutional, it would not change the ruling of the territorial court.
It is well-settled law that a complaint fails to raise a federal question if it contains no dispositive federal issue. Cf. Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 81-82, 97 S. Ct. 2497, 2503-04, 53 L. Ed. 2d 594 (1977); Black v. Cutter Laboratories, 351 U.S. 292, 298, 76 S. Ct. 824, 827, 100 L. Ed. 1188 (1956); Herb v. Pitcairn, 324 U.S. 117, 125-26, 65 S. Ct. 459, 462-63, 89 L. Ed. 789 (1945).
To bring a case within the [federal question jurisdiction] statute, a right or immunity created by the Constitution or laws of the United States must be an element, and an essential one, of the plaintiff's cause of action. The right or immunity must be such that it will be supported if the Constitution or laws of the United States are given one construction or effect, and defeated if they receive another.
Gully v. First National Bank in Meridian, 299 U.S. 109, 112, 57 S. Ct. 96, 97, 81 L. Ed. 70 (1936) (citations omitted). Therefore, plaintiff fails to raise a valid constitutional claim in Counts Two and Three. Because the Reid courts did not base their holdings on the race restrictions against alienation, plaintiff's claim under the civil rights statutes must fail as well.
In light of the foregoing, the Court will deny a motion to intervene as plaintiffs filed by six individual residents of American Samoa who allege Section 37.0204(b) unconstitutionally restricts their right to freely alienate land. Because the Church's Counts Two and Three will be dismissed, the intervenors do not raise a common issue of law or fact with plaintiff. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 24.
C. The Claim Challenging the American Samoan Courts
In Count Four, plaintiff asserts it was denied due process because it had to try its case in the courts of American Samoa, which it alleges are neither independent nor competent. Plaintiff further asserts it was unconstitutionally denied access to an Article III court, and, because litigants in all other United States territories may appeal directly to an Article III court,
it was also denied equal protection.
The Secretary of the Interior's authority over American Samoa, and hence its judiciary, is in theory, plenary. 48 U.S.C. § 1661(c); Exec.Order No. 10264, supra. The Secretary approves the budget for the territory, and the budget for the courts. See Secretary's Order No. 2657 § 4 (Aug. 29, 1951, as amended, 1972). Laws relating to the organization of the courts must, like all statutes passed by the Samoan legislature, be submitted to the Secretary for approval. Id. § 2(6), § 4. The Secretary appoints the justices to the High Court, Rev.Const. of Am.Samoa, Art. III, §§ 1-3, and may remove them "for cause." Am.Samoa Code § 3.1001.
However, except for his appointment power, the Secretary has generally removed himself from overseeing the routine affairs of the High Court. For example, once money is appropriated by the Department of the Interior for the courts, it is beyond the Department's control. See File B-1996690, Office of the Comptroller General, Matter of Expenditures Incurred by the Government of American Samoa for the American Samoan Judiciary, Mar. 14, 1980.
Similarly, the American Samoa Constitution and various statutes arrange for the courts to function without interference by the Secretary. The American Samoa Constitution, which may be modified only by act of Congress, 48 U.S.C. § 1662a (1983 Supp.), vests judicial power in the High Court and assures that the court shall be independent of the executive and legislative branches of the ASG. By statute, the Chief Justice is responsible for administering the courts, and he appoints and fixes salaries for nonjudicial personnel. Am.Samoa Code §§ 3.0102, 3.0205. The High Court also includes associate judges, who are appointed for four-year terms by the Governor of American Samoa upon recommendation of the Chief Justice and confirmation by the Samoan Senate. Id. § 3.1004. They, too, may be removed for cause, but by the Chief Justice. Id. § 3.1004(d). Associate judges are typically local matai, knowledgeable in the Fa'a Samoa but not necessarily educated in United States law. Comment, Some Observations on the Judiciary in American Samoa, 18 UCLA L.Rev. 581, 588 (1971). The Secretary of the Interior also frequently appoints as associate justices members of Article III federal courts in the United States to serve on the appellate division court from time to time.
See, e.g., Reid, supra.
The Secretary and the plaintiff contend that the Secretary of the Interior may review and reverse the decisions of the High Court.
Section 43.0804 of the American Samoa Code implies the Secretary has this right.
However, all parties agree that the Secretary has never of his own accord overruled a decision by the Samoan judiciary.
Plaintiff contends that because the justices of the High Court are removable at the discretion of the Secretary alone, they lack sufficient independence to accord due process. This Court does not accept plaintiff's conclusion that the "for cause" requirement of Section 3.1001 is no limit on the Secretary's discretion to remove the justices. However, even if the Secretary could remove them at his sole discretion, this alone would not violate due process. See Kalaris v. Donovan, 225 U.S. App. D.C. 134, 697 F.2d 376, 397-98 (D.C.Cir.), cert. denied, 462 U.S. 1119, 103 S. Ct. 3088, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1349 (1983). Kalaris considered the constitutionality of having private rights adjudicated in the first instance by members of the Labor Department's Benefits Review Board, who sit at the discretion of the Secretary of Labor. This posed no constitutional problem, the court of appeals concluded, where the Board's decisions could be appealed to an independent court. Id. at 399-400. The court noted this kind of structure was mirrored throughout the federal bureaucracy and in territorial courts.
Id., 400-01 & n. 103. To paraphrase Kalaris, the Church here has failed to indicate "why the additional degree of independence and protection [it] seeks is essential for dispassionate decisionmaking" in American Samoa but not in other settings where Congress has delegated judicial or quasi-judicial authority. Id. at 400-01.
Plaintiff next contends that it has a right to have its claim adjudicated by an Article III court, or a right to appeal directly to an Article III court. The federal district court in Hawaii faced a similar claim in the case of Meaamaile v. American Samoa, 550 F. Supp. 1227 (D.Haw.1982). Meaamaile brought an action sounding in admiralty and tort in connection with injuries he suffered in a shipping accident and as a result of treatment in an American Samoa hospital. He sued in federal court in Hawaii, asserting a right to trial in "an Article III court staffed by judges independent of executive control". Id. at 1235. Judge King rejected his claim:
The basic fallacy of plaintiff's argument is that its fundamental premise is unfounded -- plaintiff is simply not entitled to a trial in an Article III court. Rather, he is entitled to a trial in the High Court of American Samoa, which is a territorial court duly constituted under Article IV of the United States Constitution.