PAGO PAGO, American Samoa - American Samoa appointing its own chief justice and associate justice was a topic raised during a meeting earlier this month in Washington D.C., and the decision was for both the territorial government and the Interior Department to conduct their own separate reviews, and research before another meeting is called for further discussions.
Gov. Togiola Tulafono said publicly that one of the issues he planned to raise with the Interior Department officials is the issue of having American Samoa appoint its own chief and associate justices and other justices of the High Court - all subject to legislative approval.
Speaking on his weekend radio program, Togiola said one of his last meetings in Washington was with Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Anthony Babauta and Office of Insular Affairs director Nikolau Pula to discuss two issues, including this one.
Togiola said he informed the Department of the Interior (DOI) officials that the territory is not fully self-governing, because of this last remaining issue dealing with the two top posts of the Judicial Branch, which are currently appointed by the Secretary of Interior.
Togiola says he believes that this is one reason why the United Nations has kept American Samoa on the list of world colonies, because there is still this issue - the justices being appointed by Interior.
While the DOI officials agreed with American Samoa's argument for full self-government, the officials prefer to keep the current arrangement, said the governor, adding that he did point out that American Samoans are being called up in the military to fight for democracy in other countries, while the territory is not given a fully democratic-self government.
He said the outcome of the meeting was that both sides are to conduct their own review and research on this matter, with a meeting to be called later for further discussions.
Togiola says that even if the territory appoints its chief justice and associate justice, American Samoa will still remain under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.
While in the nation's capital, one of the meetings attended by the governor, held on Mar. 1, was the Interagency Group on Insular Areas (IGIA), whose online link on the Office of Interior Affairs (OIA) website provided Briefing Papers for the 2011 Senior Plenary Session of the IGIA.
One brief deals with this issue that American Samoa would like to appoint its own chief justice and associate justices, an authority which the Secretary of Interior has exercised for six decades.
For background information, according to the briefing paper, OIA provides American Samoa Government (ASG) with an annual operations grant totaling US$22.7 million which funds ASG's education and health systems and the High Court, whose share of the annual ASG operations grant is approximately US$855,000, of which OIA withholds US$346,500 for the direct payment of salary and benefits to the chief justice and associate justice, who are OIA career-service employees.
"So long as ASG's executive and legislative branches have preferred to maintain this system for the High Court, a practice with which the other insular areas dispensed decades ago, Office of Interior Affairs has been willing to continue this assistance and to exercise this authority," according to the briefing paper provided by Joseph McDermott with OIA's Policy Division.
"However, it is OIA's policy to promote insular self-government and local responsibility. Concerning this particular issue, OIA has determined that the ASG operations grant should be held constant, thereby encouraging American Samoa Government leaders to assume greater responsibility, both fiscal and managerial, for more aspects of ASG's functions," the briefing paper states. It also says that OIA does not have additional budgetary resources to provide more funds to American Samoa Government for its operations, including the High Court.
Moreover, Office of Interior Affairs officials will need to discuss with the governor of American Samoa and other American Samoa Government leaders how ASG can set aside the additional funding needed to pay for more associate justices and associate judges.
These discussions should include the need for additional personnel vis-à-vis ASG's education and health priorities and how these priorities might affect the current distribution of ASG's operations grant; and the possibility of adopting the practices of Guam, the U.S.Virgin Islands and Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas judicial systems, namely, applying local rates of pay and increasing local authority over appointments, thus making funding available for more High Court employees, it says.
The briefing paper also noted that the 2010 Constitutional Convention decided against including a proposed amendment to the territory's Constitution that would give American Samoa the authority to appoint its own justices.
"In November 2010, American Samoans voted down the entire packet of proposed amendments," the briefing paper concluded. District Court Judge John Ward II and District Court Judge Elvis Patea have already been designated as acting associate justices of the High Court, as the judicial branch has seen a rise in case load.