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Tuaua v. United States

United States District Court, District Circuit

June 26, 2013

LENEUOTI FIAFIA TUAUA, et al., Plaintiffs,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, et al., Defendants.


RICHARD J. LEON, District Judge.

Plaintiffs are five non-citizen U.S. nationals born in American Samoa and the Samoan Federation of America, a nonprofit organization serving the Samoan community in Los Angeles. Compl. ¶¶ 10-15, [1] They seek declaratory and injunctive relief against defendants, the United States and the related parties that execute its citizenship laws. Id. ¶¶ 16-19.[2] They assert that the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause extends to American Samoa and that people born in American Samoa are therefore U.S. citizens at birth. Id. at 25-26. Plaintiffs also argue that Immigration and Naturalization Act § 308(1) is unconstitutional because it provides that American Samoans are noncitizen U.S. nationals. See id. at 26. Further, they ask the Court to hold that a State Department policy and practice are unconstitutional and invalid under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"). See Compl. at 26. Underlying all of these claims is the same legal argument: the Citizenship Clause applies to American Samoa, so contrary law and policy must be invalidated. The United States and related parties move to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. See Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ("Defs.' Mem.") [Dkt. #9] at 1. Because plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the Court GRANTS defendants' Motion to Dismiss.


American Samoa is located on the eastern islands of an archipelago in the South Pacific. Compl. ¶ 3. The United States claimed this territory in a 1900 treaty with Great Britain and Germany, 31 Stat. 1878, and Samoan leaders formally ceded sovereignty to the United States in 1900 and 1904, 45 Stat. 1253. American Samoa was administered by the Secretary of the Navy until 1951, when President Truman transferred administrative responsibility to American Samoa's current supervisor, the Secretary of the Interior. Exec. Order No. 10, 264, 16 Fed. Reg. 6, 417 (July 3, 1951).

Over the past half-century, American Samoa has strengthened its ties to the United States. The Constitution of American Samoa was approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1967 and provides for an elected bicameral legislature, an appointed governor, and an independent judiciary. Compl. ¶ 27. In 1977, the Secretary permitted the governor to be selected by popular vote. Id. One year later, Congress voted to give American Samoa a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Id. [3] American Samoans have served in the U.S. military since 1900 and, most recently, in the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Id. ¶ 31. In signing the 1978 legislation granting American Samoa a delegate in Congress, President Carter acknowledged the islands' contributions to American sports and culture and their role as "a permanent part of American political life." Jimmy Carter, Presidential Statement on Signing H.R. 13702 into Law (Oct. 31, 1978), cited in Pls.' Mem. of P. & A. in Opp'n to Gov't's Mot. Dismiss ("Pls.' Opp'n") [Dkt. #18] at 5 n.7.

At the same time, however, American Samoa has endeavored to preserve its traditional way of life known as fa'a Samoa. Indeed, its constitution protects the Samoan tradition of communal ownership of ancestral lands by large, extended families:

It shall be the policy of the Government of American Samoa to protect persons of Samoan ancestry against alienation of their lands and the destruction of the Samoan way of life and language, contrary to their best interests. Such legislation as may be necessary may be enacted to protect the lands, customs, culture, and traditional Samoan family organization of persons of Samoan ancestry, and to encourage business enterprises by such persons. No change in the law respecting the alienation or transfer of land or any interest therein, shall be effective unless the same be approved by two successive legislatures by a two-thirds vote of the entire membership of each house and by the Governor.

Rev. Const. of Am. Samoa art. I, § 3; see also Craddick v. Territorial Registrar, 1 Am. Samoa 2d 11, 12 (1980); Amicus Br. at 4-5. American Samoans take pride in their unique political and cultural practices, and they celebrate its history free from conquest or involuntary annexation by foreign powers. Amicus Br. at 3.

Federal law classifies American Samoa as an "outlying possession" of the United States. Immigration and Naturalization Act ("INA") § 101(a)(29), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(29). As such, people born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens at birth. INA § 308(1), 8 U.S.C. § 1408(1). The State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual ("FAM") accordingly categorizes American Samoa as an unincorporated territory and states that "the citizenship provisions of the Constitution do not apply to persons born there." 7 FAM § 1125.1(b). In accordance with INA and FAM, the State Department stamps the passports of people born in American Samoa with "Endorsement Code 09, " which declares that the holder of the passport is a U.S. national but not a U.S. citizen. See Compl. ¶ 7; Defs.' Mem. at 6-7. American Samoans have been permitted to become naturalized U.S. citizens since 1952, but plaintiffs describe that process as "lengthy, costly, and burdensome." Compl. ¶¶ 47-48. American Samoans must relocate to another part of the United States to begin the naturalization process, and the citizenship application requires a $680 fee, a moral character assessment, fingerprinting, and an English and civics examination. Pls.' Opp'n at 11.

All of the individual plaintiffs were issued passports by the State Department bearing Endorsement Code 09. See id. ¶¶ 10-14. Plaintiffs allege a variety of harms that have befallen them due to their non-citizen national status. Several plaintiffs, despite long careers in the military or law enforcement, remain unable to vote or to work in jobs that require citizenship status. Id. ¶ 10(c), 11(c)-(e), 14(c)-(d). Other harms include: ineligibility for federal work-study programs in college, id. ¶ 11(c); ineligibility for firearm permits, id. ¶ 11(e); and inability to obtain travel and immigration visas, id. ¶ 12(e), 13(d-e).


Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) and for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss Pls.' Compl. ("Defs.' Mot.") [Dkt. #9] at 1. For a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), "the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the factual predicates of jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence." Erby v. United States, 424 F.Supp.2d 180, 182 (D.D.C. 2006) (citing, inter alia, Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)). "[P]laintiff's factual allegations in the complaint... will bear closer scrutiny in resolving a 12(b)(1) motion than in resolving a 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim." US. ex rel. Digital Healthcare, Inc. v. Affiliated Computer, 778 F.Supp.2d 37, 43 (D.D.C. 2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests whether the plaintiff has pleaded facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level, " assuming that the facts alleged are true. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). "While a complaint should not be dismissed unless the court determines that the allegations do not support relief on any legal theory, the complaint nonetheless must set forth sufficient information to suggest that there is some recognized legal theory upon which relief may be granted." District of Columbia v. Air Fla., Inc., 750 F.2d 1077, 1078 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

In considering motions under both Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6), a court must construe the complaint in a light favorable to the plaintiff and must accept as true plaintiff's reasonable factual inferences. See Howard v. Fenty, 580 F.Supp.2d 86, 89-90 (D.D.C. 2008); Smith v. United States, 475 F.Supp.2d 1, 7 (D.D.C. 2006) (citing EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997)).


I. Jurisdiction

Before the Court can reach the merits of this case, it must, of course, ensure that the dispute falls within its jurisdiction. Util. Air Regulatory Grp. v. EPA, 320 F.3d 272, 277 (D.C. Cir. 2003). Defendants put forth three arguments contesting this Court's jurisdiction over plaintiffs' claims: 1) two of plaintiffs' APA claims are jurisdictionally time-barred, 2) the Samoan Federation of America lacks standing, and 3) plaintiffs' complaint is barred by the political question doctrine. See Defs.' Mem. at 17-18, 19-23. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that it has jurisdiction.

First, defendants allege that two of the five individual plaintiffs' APA claims are time-barred because their passports, bearing Endorsement Code 09, were issued outside the six year limitations period. See Defs.' Mem. at 20-21.[4] Putting aside the merits of defendants' argument, however, the fact remains that the three other plaintiffs have, in essence, raised the identical APA claim. Thus, having jurisdiction to hear those claims effectively provides this Court with the very jurisdiction necessary to evaluate the merits of these claims.

Similarly, defendants' assertion that the Samoan Federation of America lacks standing to sue either on its own behalf or on behalf of its members, see Defs.' Mem. at 21-23, is an argument that is of no real consequence.[5] It is well-established that a court need not consider the standing of the other plaintiffs when at least one plaintiff has standing. See In re Navy Chaplaincy, 697 F.3d 1171, 1178 (D.C. Cir. 2012); Tozzi v. US. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 271 F.3d 301, 310 (D.C. Cir. 2001); see also Watt v. Energy Action Educ. Found., 454 U.S. 151, 160 (1981); Mountain States Legal Found. v. Glickman, 92 F.3d 1228, 1232 (D.C. Cir. 1996). The bottom line here is clear: defendants do not allege that the individual plaintiffs lack standing, nor is there any reason for this Court to believe that they do. As such, the Court need not address the standing of the Samoan Federation of America in order to determine whether it has jurisdiction.

Finally, defendants advance the novel and somewhat exotic jurisdictional argument that plaintiffs' suit raises a nonjusticiable political question.[6] See Defs.' Mem. at 17-18. The Government argues that, "at bottom, " plaintiffs are arguing for a grant of statehood to American Samoa, and that such a determination is a political question committed by the Constitution to Congress. See id. at 18. Plaintiffs respond that their complaint does not argue for statehood, but instead argues for the application of a particular constitutional provision to a territory, a claim "eminently fit for judicial resolution." Pls.' Opp'n at 33.

To the extent they view plaintiffs as petitioning for statehood, however, defendants misread the complaint. The complaint clearly urges the application of the Citizenship Clause to American Samoa, but it never "demands" recognition of American Samoa as a state or even mentions the word "statehood." See generally Compl. The actual task before the Court-determining whether the Citizenship Clause applies to American Samoa-is, indeed, a proper judicial inquiry.[7]

II. Failure to State a Claim

Having jurisdiction, the Court turns to defendants' motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Plaintiffs' claims all hinge upon one legal assertion: the Citizenship Clause guarantees the citizenship of people born in American Samoa. Defendants argue that this assertion must be rejected in light of the Constitution's plain language, rulings from the Supreme Court and other federal courts, longstanding historical practice, and pragmatic considerations. See generally Defs.' Mem.; Gov't's Reply in Supp. of Their Mot. to Dismiss ("Defs.' Reply") [Dkt. #20]; Amicus Br. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, I agree. The Citizenship Clause does not guarantee birthright citizenship to American Samoans. As such, for the following reasons, I must dismiss the remainder of plaintiffs' claims.

The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, section 1. Both parties seem to agree that American Samoa is "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States, and other courts have concluded as much. See Pls.' Opp'n at 2; Defs.' Mem. at 14 (citing Rabang as noting that the territories are "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States). But to be covered by the Citizenship Clause, a person must be born or naturalized "in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof." Thus, the key question becomes whether American Samoa qualifies as a part of the "United States" as that is used within the Citizenship Clause.[8]

The Supreme Court famously addressed the extent to which the Constitution applies in territories in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases.[9] In these cases, the Supreme Court contrasted "incorporated" territories-those lands expressly made part of the United States by an act of Congress-with "unincorporated territories" that had not yet become part of the United States and were not on a path toward statehood. See, e.g., Downes, 182 U.S. at 312; Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138, 143 (1904); see also United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 268 (1990); Eche v. Holder, 694 F.3d 1026, 1031 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 757-58 (2008)).[10] In an unincorporated territory, the Insular Cases held that only certain "fundamental" constitutional rights are extended to its inhabitants. Dorr, 195 U.S. 148-49; Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312 (1922); see also Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. at 268. While none of the Insular Cases directly addressed the Citizenship Clause, they suggested that citizenship was not a "fundamental" right that applied to unincorporated territories.[11]

For example, in the Insular Case of Downes v. Bidwell , the Court addressed, via multiple opinions, whether the Revenue Clause of the Constitution applied in the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. In an opinion for the majority, Justice Brown intimated in dicta that citizenship was not guaranteed to unincorporated territories. See Downes, 182 U.S. at 282 (suggesting that citizenship and suffrage are not "natural rights enforced in the Constitution" but rather rights that are "unnecessary to the proper protection of individuals."). He added that "it is doubtful if Congress would ever assent to the annexation of territory upon the condition that its inhabitants, however foreign they may be to our habits, traditions, and modes of life, shall become at once citizens of the United States." Id. at 279-80. He also contrasted the Citizenship Clause with the language of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery "within the United States, or in any place subject to their jurisdiction." Id at 251 (emphasis added). He stated:

[T]he 14th Amendment, upon the subject of citizenship, declares only that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the state wherein they reside." Here there is a limitation to persons born or naturalized in the United States, which is not extended to persons born in any place "subject to their jurisdiction."

Id. (emphasis added). In a concurrence, Justice White echoed this sentiment, arguing that the practice of acquiring territories "could not be practically exercised if the result would be to endow the inhabitants with citizenship of the United States." Id. at 306.

Plaintiffs rightly note that Downes did not possess a singular majority opinion and addressed the right to citizenship only in dicta. Pls.' Opp'n at 25-27. But in the century since Downes and the Insular Cases were decided, no federal court has recognized birthright citizenship as a guarantee in unincorporated territories. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has continued to suggest that citizenship is not guaranteed to people born in unincorporated territories. For example, in a case addressing the legal status of an individual born in the Philippines while it was a territory, the Court noted-without objection or concern-that "persons born in the Philippines during [its territorial period] were American nationals" and "until 1946, [could not] become United States citizens. Barber v. Gonzales, 347 U.S. 637, 639 n.1 (1954). Again, in Miller v. Albright, 523 U.S. 420, 467 n.2 (1998), Justice Ginsberg noted in her dissent that "the only remaining noncitizen nationals are residents of American Samoa and Swains Island" and failed to note anything objectionable about their noncitizen national status. More recently, in Boumediene v. Bush , the Court reexamined the Insular Cases in holding that the Constitution's Suspension Clause applies in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 553 U.S. 723 , 757-59 (2008). The Court noted that the Insular Cases "devised... a doctrine that allowed [the Court] to use its power sparingly and where it would most be needed. This centuryold doctrine informs our analysis in the present matter." Id. at 759.

Plaintiffs argue that Boumediene did not reaffirm-but instead narrowed-the Insular Cases. Pls.' Opp'n at 28-29. They point to the Court's statement that "[i]t may well be that over time the ties between the United States and any of its, unincorporated Territories strengthen in ways that are of constitutional significance." Boumediene, 553 U.S. at 758 (citing Torres v. Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465, 475-476 (1979) (Brennan, J., concurring in judgment) ("Whatever the validity of the [Insular Cases] in the particular historical context in which they were decided, those cases are clearly not authority for questioning the application of the Fourth Amendment-or any other provision of the Bill of Rights-to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in the 1970's.")). Id. This vague statement crafted in a vastly different context, however, does not license this Court to turn its back on the more direct and more persuasive precedent and the legal framework that has predominated over the unincorporated territories for more than a century.

Indeed, other federal courts have adhered to the precedents of the Insular Cases in similar cases involving unincorporated territories. For example, the Second, Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits have held that the term "United States" in the Citizenship Clause did not include the Philippines during its time as an unincorporated territory. See generally Nolos v. Holder, 611 F.3d 279 (5th Cir. 2010); Valmonte v. INS, 136 F.3d 914 (2d Cir. 1998); Lacap v. INS, 138 F.3d 518 (3d Cir. 1998); Rabang, 35 F.3d 1449. These courts relied extensively upon Downes to assist with their interpretation of the Citizenship Clause. See Nolos, 611 F.3d at 282-84; Valmonte, 136 F.3d at 918-21; Rabang, 35 F.3d at 1452-53. Indeed, one of my own distinguished colleagues in an earlier decision cited these precedents to reaffirm that the Citizenship Clause did not include the Philippines during its territorial period. See Licudine v. Winter, 603 F.Supp.2d 129, 132-34 (D.D.C. 2009) (Robinson, J.).[12]

Plaintiffs attempt to distinguish these cases by noting that the Philippines, unlike American Samoa, was a territory only "temporarily." Pls.' Opp'n at 31. But none of these cases based their decision on the fact that the Philippines was a temporary territory. Even if this distinction made a difference, plaintiffs fail to rebut the Ninth Circuit's recent holding that the Northern Mariana Islands-a current and longstanding territory-is not included within the bounds of the Citizenship Clause. Eche v. Holder, 694 F.3d 1026, 1027-28 (9th Cir. 2012).[13] In short, federal courts have held over and over again that unincorporated territories are not included within the Citizenship Clause, and this Court sees no reason to do otherwise![14]

In both their brief and in oral argument, plaintiffs placed great weight on our Circuit's decision in King v. Morton, 520 F.2d 1140 (D.C. Cir. 1975). In that case, the Court addressed whether an American citizen was guaranteed the right to trial by jury in American Samoa. Id. at 1146. Rejecting the reliance on "key words such as fundamental' or unincorporated territory' in the Insular Cases and other cases, the court instead employed the test from Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 75 (1957) (Harlan, J., concurring): asking whether the right to trial by jury would be "impractical and anomalous.'" King, 520 F.2d at 1147 (quoting Reid, 354 U.S. at 75). As defendants rightly note, this case addressed the rights of an existing citizen in American Samoa-not the right of persons born in American Samoa to citizenship itself. Defs.' Reply at 9. This distinction was critical in Reid, the case upon which King relied. As the Supreme Court noted in Boumediene, "That the petitioners in Reid were American citizens was a key factor in the case and was central to the plurality's conclusion that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments apply to American civilians tried outside the United States." 553 U.S. at 760. Further, neither King nor Reid discussed the right to citizenship-a right that other federal courts have addressed directly and, in doing so, have refused to extend to unincorporated territories.

Morever, our Circuit appeared to reaffirm its commitment to Insular Cases-in terms of extending only "fundamental" rights to unincorporated territories-in a case following King that involved a due process claim in American Samoa. Corp. of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints v. Hodel, 830 F.2d 374, 385 (D.C. Cir. 1987). In that case, the Circuit stated that "the Supreme Court long ago determined that in the unincorporated' territories, such as American Samoa, the guarantees of the Constitution apply only insofar as its fundamental limitations in favor of personal rights' express principles which are the basis of all free government which cannot be with impunity transcended.'" Id. (citing Dorr, 195 U.S. at 146-47). The court held that access to a court independent of the executive branch is not a "fundamental" right extending to American Samoa. Id. at 386. In light of this later case and King's distinct context, this Court does not find King to be an appropriate guidepost for this case.[15]

Finally, this Court is mindful of the years of past practice in which territorial citizenship has been treated as a statutory, and not a constitutional, right. In the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, birthright citizenship was conferred upon their inhabitants by various statutes many years after the United States acquired them. See Amicus Br. at 10-11. If the Citizenship Clause guaranteed birthright citizenship in unincorporated territories, these statutes would have been unnecessary. While longstanding practice is not sufficient to demonstrate constitutionality, such a practice requires special scrutiny before being set aside. See, e.g., Jackman v. Rosenbaum Co., 260 U.S. 22, 31 (1922) (Holmes, J.) ("If a thing has been practiced for two hundred years by common consent, it will need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it[.]"); Walz v. Tax Comm'n, 397 U.S. 664, 678 (1970) ("It is obviously correct that no one acquires a vested or protected right in violation of the Constitution by long use.... Yet an unbroken practice... is not something to be lightly cast aside."). And while Congress cannot take away the citizenship of individuals covered by the Citizenship Clause, it can bestow citizenship upon those not within the Constitution's breadth. See U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2 ("Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory belonging to the United States."); id. at art. I, § 8, cl. 4 (Congress may "establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization...."). To date, Congress has not seen fit to bestow birthright citizenship upon American Samoa, and in accordance with the law, this Court must and will respect that choice.[16]


For the foregoing reasons, the Court GRANTS defendants' Motion to Dismiss. An order consistent with this decision accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.

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