American Samoa Law & Government

American Samoa Law & Government

The American Samoa Government is the dominant force in the territory’s life. The government is similar to a U.S. state government, with a governor and a legislature comprised of a popularly elected House and a Senate (collectively, the Fono). Until 1977, the governor was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, but local elections have been held since that time.

As an “unincorporated” territory, American Samoa is legally a possession of the United States, rather than an “incorporated” part of the country like the fifty states. In this sense, American Samoa is similar to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unincorporated territories are largely not governed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore have different rights and privileges from the United States proper, although the applicability of various U.S. Constitutional provisions in American Samoa, as well as questions of federal jurisdiction in the territory, remain complicated and unresolved. But because American Samoa need not observe all U.S. laws, it has a unique legal environment. For example, land ownership is mostly held by extended families controlled by chiefs, and alienation (i.e. transfer) of such land is restricted to only native Samoans. Non-natives are not permitted to own land but can enter long-term leaseholds.

Persons born in American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, not U.S. Citizens.

American Samoa has its own judicial system, including a High Court, which has trial, land and titles, and appellate divisions, as well as a District Court, which hears preliminary criminal proceedings and small claims, and various administrative tribunals. Each village also has a village court with authority to adjudicate matters pertaining to village rules and local customs. The closest U.S. District Court is in Hawaii, but the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. also has jurisdiction over some disputes arising in American Samoa. Because of the lack of a federal district court, the High Court exercises jurisdiction over some traditionally federal matters, including admiralty/maritime matters.

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