SCOTUS punts on deciding natural citizenship definition

Well that was certainly disappointing. The Supreme Court had the opportunity to weigh in on the idea of how we define birthright citizenship – a least in some cases – this week, but they took a pass on it. When I see a case description like this my first thought runs to questions which have been in the news quite bit in recent years, such as those surrounding Ted Cruz being born in Canada. This one was a bit more far flung and considerably more specific, but it could have spoken to some of those other questions as well. A group of citizens from American Samoa brought suit to claim that they were improperly denied citizenship because they were born in an American territory.

The Supremes didn’t care to debate the lower courts’ decisions. (NBC News)

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to decide who becomes a US citizen at birth, in a case brought by a group of American Samoans.

Since 1900, American Samoa has been a territory of the United States. But unlike residents of other US territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, its residents are declared by Congress to be “non-citizen nationals.”…

Five people born there filed a lawsuit, claiming their non-citizen status violates a provision of the 14th Amendment that says “All persons born or naturalized in the States States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

Oddly enough, both the White House and the Samoan government were fighting against this case, preferring to leave things as they are. The Justice Department was arguing that the territories are not “in” the United States as such, so only Congress could assign birthright citizenship to the residents. (As they’ve done for all the other territories.) For their part, Samoa seems to be fearful of falling fully under US jurisdiction and laws. Specifically, their extended family concept (which you can read a summary of here) seems to be one area of contention, since the heads of large family groups can control many aspects of communal property and other rights under local law.

None of this speaks directly to the question of the meaning of “natural born citizen” in the Constitution but it would have at least opened up the discussion for potential future challenges. It’s a pity that they turned the case down because these issues are going to keep coming up over and over until they do.