Issues Associated with Potential Changes to the Current System for Adjudicating Matters of Federal Law
GAO-08-655, Jun 27, 2008
American Samoa is the only populated U.S. insular area that does not have a federal court. Congress has granted the local High Court federal jurisdiction for certain federal matters, such as specific areas of maritime law. GAO was asked to conduct a study of American Samoa's system for addressing matters of federal law. Specifically, this report discusses: (1) the current system for adjudicating matters of federal law in American Samoa and how it compares to those in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI); (2) the reasons offered for or against changing the current system for adjudicating matters of federal law in American Samoa; (3) potential scenarios and issues associated with establishing a federal court in American Samoa or expanding the federal jurisdiction of the local court; and (4) the potential cost elements and funding sources associated with implementing those different scenarios. To conduct this work, we reviewed previous studies and testimonies, and collected information from and conducted interviews with federal government officials and American Samoa government officials.
Because American Samoa does not have a federal court like the CNMI, Guam, or USVI, matters of federal law arising in American Samoa have generally been adjudicated in U.S. district courts in Hawaii or the District of Columbia. Reasons offered for changing the existing system focus primarily on the difficulties of adjudicating matters of federal law arising in American Samoa, principally based on American Samoa's remote location, and the desire to provide American Samoans more direct access to justice. Reasons offered against any changes focus primarily on concerns about the effects of an increased federal presence on Samoan culture and traditions and concerns about juries' impartiality given close family ties. During the mid-1990s, several proposals were studied and many of the issues discussed then, such as the protection of local culture, were also raised during this study. Based on previous studies and information gathered for this report, GAO identified three potential scenarios, if changes were to be made: (1) establish a federal court in American Samoa under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, (2) establish a district court in American Samoa as a division of the District of Hawaii, or (3) expand the federal jurisdiction of the High Court of American Samoa. Each scenario would present unique issues to be addressed, such as what jurisdiction to grant the court. The potential cost elements for establishing a federal court in American Samoa include agency rental costs, personnel costs, and operational costs, most of which would be funded by congressional appropriations. Exact details of the costs to be incurred would have to be determined when, and if, any of the scenarios were adopted. The controversy surrounding whether and how to create a venue for adjudicating matters of federal law in American Samoa is not principally focused on an analysis of cost effectiveness, but other policy considerations, such as equity, justice, and cultural preservation.