The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case Monday that had urged the justices to interpret the Constitution as granting birthright citizenship to people born in American Samoa.
The court’s denial came in a one-line order without explanation or noted dissent.
The lawsuit, Fitisemanu vs. the United States, was brought by a group of American Samoans who sought to challenge the precedent set by a series of Supreme Court decisions in the early 1900s regarding U.S. territories known as the “Insular Cases.”
These cases held that people born in American Samoa and other unincorporated U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish–American War are not entitled to birthright citizenship under the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Fitisemanu case sought to overturn the Insular Cases in part because of their “disreputable ignominious, and racist history,” the petitioners wrote in their brief.
The rulings in the Insular Cases included stark terms used in the opinions, with justices in the 1901 DeLima v. Bidwell case calling the people of the newly acquired territories “savage tribes” and “uncivilized tribes.”
“The Insular Cases are thus properly understood as central documents in the history of American racism,” the plaintiffs in the Fitisemanu case claimed in their brief.
However, more recent courts have held portions of the Insular Cases to be valid while dismissing the racial arguments.
In 2015, a D.C. District Court relied on the Insular Cases in Tuatua v. U.S. to rule that those born in American Samoa were not entitled to U.S. citizenship.
The court wrote in its decision “that citizenship is not guaranteed to people born in unincorporated territories.”
John Fitisemanu, a Utah resident and the lead plaintiff in the case, said in a press release that he was highly disappointed by the court’s decision not to hear his case.
“It’s a punch in the gut for the Justices to leave in place a ruling that says I am not equal to other Americans simply because I was born in a U.S. territory,” said Fitisemanu. “I was born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay my taxes like everyone else. But because of a discriminatory federal law, I am not recognized as a U.S. citizen.”
Like other people born in American Samoa, Fitisemanu is a U.S. national and must undergo a naturalization process to receive U.S. citizenship.
American Samoa is the only unincorporated territory of the United States where the inhabitants are not granted birthright citizenship for the U.S.
The challengers, backed by a Utah-based nonprofit group, won the first round of litigation in 2019, prompting an appeal by the U.S. government, which the government of American Samoa joined.
Those born in the cluster of islands some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii cannot vote for U.S. president, run for office outside American Samoa, or apply for certain jobs, including as a police officer.
The only federal election American Samoans can vote in is the race for American Samoa’s nonvoting U.S. House seat.
Still, top American Samoan political leaders had urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case, as many Indigenous peoples in the territories see the Insular Cases as a form of protection of their unique customs, such as the territory’s communal land ownership system.
They feared that overturning the Insular Cases might threaten those traditions.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case “helps preserve American Samoa’s cultural priorities and right of self-determination,” said the territory’s nonvoting U.S. House member Aumua Amata Radewagen.
“Our people value American Samoa’s right of self-determination, with great love for the United States as expressed in our people’s high rate of service to the country,” Radewagen said in a statement. “The issue of the Insular Cases can be addressed by Congress, based on self-determination by the people of each territory.”