American Samoa: 2010 proposed constitutional amendments failed, but shed light on judicial selection

American Samoa’s judicial power, under its 1967 revised constitution, is not particularly detailed. It is vested in the High Court (whose members are chosen by the Secretary of the Interior), the District Courts, and such other courts as may from time to time be created by law. The judicial branch is guaranteed independence from the executive and legislative branches. However, these provisions were examined in 2010 as part of an overall review of the 1967 constitution. While the changes suggested were ultimately rejected by voters, it does provide insight into the judiciary of the islands.

By an executive order signed by the Governor of American Samoa in April 2010, a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) was appointed to present proposed amendments to the territory’s 1967 revised constitution. In July 2010, a constitutional convention was opened and produced a series of amendments (located here) affecting every section of the constitution.

The amendments proposed by the CRC included numerous provisions:

  • Allowing the chief justice and associate justices of the High Court to be impeached by the House and removed by the Senate “on a felony charge or a course of conduct amounting to gross abuse of power under the laws of American Samoa.”
  • Removing the power of the Secretary of the Interior to appointed the chief justice and associate justices of the High Court and replacing with appointment by the Governor of American Samoa with confirmation by the Senate of American Samoa.
  • Removing the power to appeal decisions of the High Court to the Secretary of Interior.

The version that came out of the July 2010 constitutional convention, however, included only one change directly affecting the courts. An amendment would retain the provision that the Secretary of the Interior appoints justices of American Samoa High Court, but provide ” The Secretary of Interior may take into consideration any recommendation and advice by the Governor of American Samoa.”

Voters rejected the package of amendments 30-70%, citing the packaging of all the amendments into one single vote as a key reason for rejection.