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Supreme Court rejects citizenship for American Samoans

The Supreme Court turned down an appeal on Monday from American Samoans who said they deserved the right to be U.S. citizens at birth.

The court’s action leaves in place a law adopted in 1900 that says persons born in American Samoa will be considered “nationals” who owe allegiance to the United States, but not citizens with the right to vote and hold public office.

“We’re obviously very disappointed. This means there will be many Samoans living in California, including veterans, who will not be able to vote in November,” said Neil Weare, a civil rights lawyer and president of We the People Project, which sponsored the lawsuit brought by the Samoan Federation of America, based in Carson.

Acting without comment, the justices refused to review a U.S. appeals court ruling that said it is up to Congress, not the courts, to change the legal status of American Samoans. 

But currently, all people born in the 50 states and the other U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico, become U.S. citizens at birth. 

The lawsuit brought by five Samoan plaintiffs pointed to the 14th Amendment adopted after the Civil War, which declares that all persons “born or naturalized in the United States” shall be U.S. citizens.

In the early 1900s, however, the Supreme Court ruled that people in the newly acquired U.S. territories were not entitled to all the constitutional rights of American citizens.

In 1901, Justice Henry Brown said the “development of the American empire” could be set back by the “annexation of distant possessions,” which are “inhabited by alien races.”  

The lawyers who sued on behalf of the Samoans hoped the high court would revisit the issue of birthright citizenship and overrule the earlier decisions that had authorized what they described as second-class status for the people of the U.S. territories.

During the 20th century, Congress extended citizenship rights to the people of the other territories, except for the people of American Samoa.

The timing of appeal may have played a role in its dismissal. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, the eight justices have granted review of only a handful of new cases, and most of those arose because the lower courts had split on an issue of law.

On Monday, the court said it had denied review in more than 100 pending appeals, including Tuana vs. United States, the Samoans’ case. No new cases won a review.

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FOR THE RECORD

7:33 a.m., June 15: This article misspelled a name in a case citation. It is Tuaua vs. United States, not Tuana vs. United States. 

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Separately Monday, the court left in place the Obama administration’s anti-pollution rules that require power plants to sharply restrict emissions of mercury and other toxic chemicals.

The justices turned away an appeal from Michigan and 19 other Republican-led states, which contended the rules were too costly and illegal.

Last year, Scalia spoke for a 5-4 ruling that rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before publishing the long-delayed rules. That decision, however, stopped short of striking down the new rules, which had just taken effect. 

Earlier this year, EPA published its cost-benefit analysis. Michigan’s attorney general appealed, arguing the rules should be put on hold while further legal challenges go forward.

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But the court said Monday it would not hear the latest appeal in Michigan vs. EPA.

“Today, millions of American families and children can breathe easier knowing that these life-saving limits on toxic pollution are intact,” said Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund.

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UPDATES:

12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction and background details.

8:17 a.m.: This post was updated with a report on a separate action involving Environmental Protection Agency mercury rules.

This post was originally published at 7:24 a.m.

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