Commercial Law in American Samoa
As American Samoa’s leading commercial law practice, Mooney Wieland and its predecessor firm, Rose Joneson Vargas (RJV), have more than 20 years of experience helping local, U.S., and international clients get business done in the territory’s unique legal, economic, and political environment. Our practice is often critical to those looking to establish or expand operations into the Pacific region.
From entity formation and governmental licensing to complex contract negotiations and commercial litigation, we provide the full range of legal services required to navigate the challenges presented by this “unincorporated, unorganized territory of the United States.” Additionally, Mooney Wieland often serves as local counsel for stateside and international attorneys, and we can expand our skill set when necessary through our strategic relationship with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP’s extensive network of 500 attorneys in the U.S. and abroad.
About American Samoa
The confluence of traditional Samoan culture, U.S. influence, and international interests makes American Samoa a fascinating place to practice law. And it has connected us with a diverse group of clients from all corners of Oceania and beyond.
The islands of American Samoa became a U.S. territory in 1900 through a voluntary deed of cession. The territory was governed and administered by the U.S. Navy from 1900 to 1951. After 1951, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Insular Affairs Office has held oversight responsibility for American Samoa.
Populated by about 60,000 people, this far-flung corner of America is located in the South Pacific Ocean near the Independent State of Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) and other island countries (e.g., Tonga, Fiji, Cook Islands). American Samoa’s status as “unorganized” means that Congress has not passed an Organic Act to create American Samoa or the American Samoa Government. Its status as “unincorporated” means that the full range of federal law and constitutional protections are not incorporated into the territory’s legal system.
Scholars and lawsuits continue to debate and adjudicate the applicability of various U.S. Constitutional provisions in American Samoa, as well as questions of federal jurisdiction in the territory. 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 (and High Court appeals court), District Court, Family Court, and Land and Titles Court. The closest U.S. District Court is in Hawaii, but the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. also has jurisdiction over some activities in American Samoa.
The economy of American Samoa is based on the distant-water tuna processing industry, support for the tuna boat fleets, and government transfers. Pago Pago Harbor is an excellent deep-water port and, after more than 50 years of industrial activity, the territory has developed high-level infrastructure (telecommunications, electricity, water, port, airport, roads, etc.) to support economic activity.
Most U.S. environmental and labor laws apply in the territory, but the minimum wage is considerably lower than the U.S. minimum wage. Income and wages are much lower in American Samoa than in the U.S., but are higher than income and wages in most South Pacific nations.
The tourism industry is small but growing. There are about 200 hotel rooms in the territory. The U.S. military does not have any bases in American Samoa, but there is an active Army Reserve presence and many American Samoans have served and continue to enlist in the U.S. military.
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 made up of traditional chiefs. Until 1977, the governor was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, but local elections have been held since that time.
Many aspects of life in American Samoa are strongly influenced by the traditional culture, known as the Fa’a Samoa (The Samoan Way). The land tenure system, which vests “ownership” of most lands in extended families headed by chiefs, is inextricably tied to the Fa’a Samoa. The Fa’a Samoa is a strong and active influence in not only weddings and funerals and allocation of land, but also in other areas, such as government and religion.
American Samoa is a bi-lingual society, and almost everyone is fluent in both Samoan and English. Both languages are used by the radio, television and newspapers, and both languages are used in commerce, government and daily use. Churches and religion are another dominant force in the territory, and American Samoa shares that characteristic with other South Pacific nations. Missionaries brought Christianity to the Samoan islands in the 19th century.
There are two or three non-stop flights to American Samoa each week, and hourly flights to the independent nation of Samoa. Regular ocean freight service provides direct connections to and from the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and other Pacific islands.