Supreme Court rejects effort to grant American Samoans U.S. citizenship at birth

Leneuoti Tuaua is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking U.S. citizenship for residents of American Samoa.

Story highlights

  • The Supreme Court's move preserves a appellate court's decision saying American Samoans don't have an automatic right to U.S. citizenship
  • Those born in other U.S. territories all get citizenship at birth, per law

Washington (CNN)American Samoans have no automatic claim to U.S. citizenship by birth despite living in a U.S. territory, according to a move by the Supreme Court on Monday.

The court declined to reconsider a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the Constitution does not confer citizenship on those born in American Samoa. The Supreme Court's move effectively preserves the appellate court's decision in the case as the last word.
    In the case, an American Samoan, Leneuoti Fia Fia Tuaua, petitioned the U.S. courts for citizenship under the clause of the Constitution that confers citizenship at birth to those born in the United States. American Samoa has been a U.S. territory since 1900.
    Those born in the other U.S. territories -- Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Marianas -- all get citizenship at birth, but that was determined by statute in Congress. No such statue exists for American Samoa.
    Tuaua was opposed in his quest by the American Samoan government itself, which argued that recognizing a right to citizenship at birth could complicated the legal structure in the territory.
    The appeals court, in an unanimous ruling, agreed with the American Samoan government, emphasizing that the resident population has also avoided automatic U.S. citizenship.
    The opinion from a conservative panel of justices drew criticism for heavily drawing from a set of cases that have grown controversial. The so-called Insular Cases, a series of rulings at the turn of the 20th century, distinguished between U.S. territories destined for statehood, such as Hawaii and Alaska, and those that weren't, like Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Those residents in territories not likely to become states were entitled to only "fundamental" rights, the cases say.
    But the cases have drawn criticism for being racially tinged and vestiges of colonialism, and the appellate court's decision relying on them likewise drew flak.
    D.C. Circuit Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote in her opinion that under the Insular cases distinction, birthright citizenship is not a "fundamental" right owed to the "unincorporated" territories.
    "Citizenship is not the sum of its benefits. It is no less than the adoption or ascription of an identity, that of 'citizen' to a particular sovereign state, and a ratification of those mores necessary and intrinsic to association as a full functioning component of that sovereignty," Brown wrote. "At base appellants ask that we forcibly impose a compact of citizenship ... on a distinct and unincorporated territory of people, in the absence of evidence that a majority of the territory's inhabitants endorse such a tie and where the territory's democratically elected representatives actively oppose such a compact."
    But it's less the facts of the case than how the case was decided that matters, said Steve Vladeck, CNN contributor and professor of law at American University Washington College of Law.
    "The real significance of this morning's denial of review has everything to do with the continuing relevance of the Insular cases," Vladeck said. "Despite wide-ranging criticisms that those rulings reflect an outdated, if not racist, approach to constitutional protections in the territories, the court of appeals extended their reasoning to also apply to birthright citizenship, and the Supreme Court today left that ruling intact."
    Though the decision specifically only deals with the citizens of American Samoa, as the other U.S. territories have sorted out citizenship through statute, Vladeck says continuing the Insular Cases doctrine will have greater consequences.
    "The longer-term impact will be felt not just among all of the U.S. territories, but also overseas -- as courts grapple with similar questions over how the Constitution protects citizens and non-citizens in foreign countries," Vladeck said.