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10/09/87 Corporation of the v. Donald P. Hodel

October 9, 1987




Silberman, Buckley, and D. H. Ginsburg, Circuit Judges.


Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 85-01894.



Appellant, Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints ("the Church"), purchased approximately 300 acres of land located in American Samoa in 1953. In 1979, appellant filed in the High Court of American Samoa a trespass action against the Puailoa family for intruding upon the Church's tract of land, known as Malaeimi. The High Court concluded that appellant did not have title to the land because the 1953 deed was invalid, and because the Church failed to satisfy the criteria necessary to obtain title by adverse possession.

After failing to obtain relief from the courts of American Samoa, appellant asked the Secretary of the Interior of the United States ("the Secretary") to exercise his authority over the territory and review the decision of the High Court. The Secretary, while acknowledging his power to intervene, declined to set aside the decision of the High Court.

Appellant then filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia an action against the Secretary challenging the constitutionality of his refusal to overturn the decision of the High Court. The District Court dismissed appellant's complaint for failure to raise a claim upon which relief could be granted. Appellant now appeals the order of the District Court, and contends that the Court erred by denying the Church the opportunity to prove that it was deprived of property without due process, by concluding that the denial of the Church's adverse possession claim was not based on a race restriction, and by refusing to allow the Church to prove that the High Court lacks the independence and finality of judgment necessary to afford due process and equal protection. We affirm the order of the District Court dismissing appellant's complaint. Before setting out the reasons for our affirmance, however, we pause to place this case in the context of American authority over Samoa, the territory's judicial system, and the traditional Samoan conception of land ownership.

Article IV, ยง 3, cl. 2 of the Constitution of the United States grants Congress plenary power over American territories: "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States." American Samoa, comprising seven islands in the South Pacific Ocean, became a United States territory in 1900. In 1929, when Congress ratified the treaties ceding the islands to the United States, it also provided that until it established a governmental structure for the territory "all civil, judicial, and military powers [in American Samoa] shall be vested in such person or persons and shall be exercised in such manner as the President of the United States shall direct." *fn1 The Department of the Navy administered American Samoa until 1951, when President Truman by Executive Order transferred authority over the territory to the Secretary of the Interior. *fn2 The Executive Order broadly authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to "take such action as may be necessary and appropriate, and in harmony with applicable law." The Secretary of the Interior, therefore, possesses plenary authority over the judicial system of American Samoa.

The Secretary appoints the Chief Justice of American Samoa and the Associate Justices of the High Court, *fn3 and may remove them for cause. *fn4 The budget for the territory, and all laws passed by the Samoan legislature, including those relating to the organization of the courts, must be submitted to the Secretary for approval. *fn5 The High Court also includes Associate Judges who are appointed by the territorial Governor and confirmed by the territorial Senate. These Associate Judges "are typically traditional Samoan leaders with knowledge of local customs." *fn6

Communal ownership of land is the cornerstone of the traditional Samoan way of life -- the "Fa'a Samoa." Samoan society is based upon the existence of extended families that may consist of hundreds of members. *fn7 These families communally own more than 90 % of the land in American Samoa. A chief -- or "matai" -- presides over each extended family. The matai exercises control over his family's communally owned land, but he does not own it: a matai may not transfer communally owned land without the approval of his family and of the territorial Governor. *fn8 I

In 1906, Puailoa Vaiuli, matai of the Puailoa family, leased 360 acres of Malaeimi to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints for a term of forty years. In 1929, when Vaiuli died, Nouata and Pasene asked the High Court to decide which one of them should succeed Vaiuli as matai of the Puailoa family. Although the Church was not a party to the dispute over Vaiuli's successor, the outcome of that case would decide to whom the Church must pay rent for the remaining period of its forty year lease to Malaeimi. In 1931 the High Court named Nouata as matai of the Puailoa family, but it awarded the rents from Malaeimi to Vaiuli's widow, Salataima. In an oral opinion, the Court stated that "that part of Malaeimi that is leased to the Mormon Missionaries is the property of the widow of Puailoa and that she should have during her lifetime the rents." *fn9 After the High Court handed down its decision awarding the rents to Salataima, the Puailoa family petitioned the territorial Governor for a new trial on the grounds that the issue of ownership of the leased land had not been properly before the Court. The Governor declined the request, and the Puailoa family did not appeal the decision to the Appellate Division of the High Court. *fn10 Salataima continued to receive the rents, in 1944 renewed the Church's lease on Malaeimi for another forty year term, and in 1953, sold to the Church approximately 300 acres of land that it had previously leased.

In 1978, Tavete M. Puailoa, Nouata's successor as matai of the Puailoa family, petitioned the High Court to reopen the 1931 case ( Nouata I), and to set aside the award of ownership of Malaeimi to Salataima. *fn11 The Church, as successor in interest to Salataima, defended against the petition. The trial court in Nouata II denied the motion to reopen Nouata I, largely because the Puailoa family had waited too long to assert its rights. The Court stated that the family's 47-year delay in challenging Nouata I was "simply too long to countenance." *fn12 Reopening the case would "undermine the settled expectations of all those who own property in American Samoa," and "engender an instability and unpredictability in [the] judicial system which would undermine all litigants' expectations as to the finality of judgments rendered by the High Court." *fn13 The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision on the merits. *fn14

The Church alleges that in response to the unfavorable ruling of the High Court, the Pualioa family resorted to self-help to gain possession of Malaeimi. In 1979, the Church filed a trespass action against members of the Puailoa family, who were allegedly "tearing down fences, destroying 'No Trespassing' signs, damaging property, and killing livestock" on Malaeimi. *fn15 The Puailoa family argued as a defense that Malaeimi was communal land, which Salataima had no right to sell, so that the Church's deed from her was invalid and the family was not guilty of trespassing. The Church argued that even if Salataima had no title to pass, it had acquired title through adverse possession.

The trial court found that the Church's deed was void for two reasons: Malaeimi could not have been the individual property of Salataima because it did not appear as freehold land on the record of Court Grants compiled in 1900, and a review of early court decisions contained references to Malaeimi as communal land. The court reasoned that Nouata I gave Salataima a life estate in the rents received from Malaeimi, but not a freehold title to the land. The trial court rejected the Church's claim of title by adverse possession on the ground that the Church had failed to occupy the land for the minimum number of years required by Samoan law. *fn16 The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court, rejecting the Church's argument that the Nouata cases were res judicata on the issue of title. The Appellate Division found the 1931 opinion in Nouata I to be ambiguous with respect to the ownership statutes of Malaeimi, and not, therefore, res judicata on the point. The appeals court concluded that the trial court's decision that the land was communal was not clearly erroneous. *fn17 The Church petitioned the High Court for rehearing, but that petition was denied on the grounds that "Salataima had no title to pass." *fn18

The Church then petitioned the Secretary of the Interior to reverse the decision of the High Court. *fn19 The Church argued that Nouata I had awarded exclusive fee ownership of Malaeimi to Salataima in 1931. According to the Church, "both the trial and appellate divisions of the High Court, in 1979 and 1980 respectively, acknowledged that the 1931 case had decided the ownership issue and had concluded that the land was individually owned by the widow Salataima." *fn20 As the Church now argues, the territorial court engaged in an "open and arbitrary effort to relitigate an issue it decided 50 years ago -- involving the predecessors of the same parties -- in order to reach a different result." *fn21

The Secretary of the Interior declined to intervene in the dispute over ownership of Maleimi. The Secretary explained that a decision to intervene in the judicial system of American Samoa "cannot be taken lightly," as any intervention might jeopardize the United States policy of "fostering greater self-government and self-sufficiency without disturbing the traditional Samoan cultural values." *fn22 Turning to the dispute over Malaeimi, the Secretary explained:

"As Secretary, I have held no hearing and read no briefs. To have done so, or to do so now, with a view toward overruling the High Court's decision, in what I perceive to be a highly complicated case, puts the Secretary in the position of an appellate court, superimposed over the duly constituted judiciary. Moreover, I am aware of no evidence that this case jeopardizes United States policy. Nor, does this case appear to present such a clear abuse of judicial discretion that intervention is dictated. For these reasons I choose not to intervene." *fn23

Having failed to obtain relief from the courts of American Samoa or to enlist the intervention of the Secretary of the Interior, the Church filed this action against the Secretary in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. In a variety of specific ways, appellant alleged that the Secretary, "through his agents, had failed to administer the government of American Samoa in accordance with the laws and Constitution of the United States." *fn2 ...

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