chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
March 09, 2023 Pro Bono Matters

Service In the South Pacific

Andrew R. Roberson

Practicing law can be both predictable and unpredictable, with many adventures along the way. It depends on your practice area, the size of your law firm, your colleagues, and your clients. One of my adventures has involved representing a client in a tax dispute halfway around the world.

American Samoa is a U.S. Territory located in the South Pacific below the equator and just east of the International Date Line. It consists of five main islands and two coral atolls. The largest island is Tutuila, where the capital of Pago Pago is located. Just to the northwest of American Samoa is the Independent State of Samoa, which also consists of several islands. For further reference, Fiji and New Zealand are located approximately 800 miles and 3,000 miles, respectively, to the southwest.

Despite its beauty, American Samoa is not a tourist destination. This is partially due to the fact that most of the land is owned communally, and there are rules in place to prevent the acquisition of land by non-Samoans.

Although American Samoa is a territory, it remains detached from the U.S. federal government structure, including the judicial system. There is no federal district court, nor has American Samoa been incorporated into another existing federal judicial district. Rather, the judiciary is defined under the Constitution of American Samoa and the American Samoa Code. It consists of the High Court of American Samoa, a district Court, and village courts, which are all under the administration and supervision of the Chief Justice.

For tax purposes, American Samoa follows the Internal Revenue Code unless clearly inapplicable or incompatible with the American Samoa Code. The High Court generally applies the Tax Court Rules of Practice and Procedure.

American Samoa is not an easy place to get to, requiring flying to Honolulu (approximately nine hours straight through from Chicago) and then from Honolulu to American Samoa (approximately six hours). Depending on the season, there are only two or three flights per week into American Samoa. And, to make things more difficult, the connection time when landing in Honolulu is extremely short, requiring a full-day layover. On one trip, I needed to return home early and could not wait for the normal travel through Honolulu. So I had to hop a flight to Samoa (which was like time-traveling because I had to cross the international date line), take a cab to the international airport, and then fly to New Zealand to Los Angeles to Chicago.

Over the past several years, I have traveled to American Samoa three times. The first was to argue a motion to shift the burden of proof to the American Samoa government, the second was the trial, and the third was for appellate argument. This last trip occurred in December 2022 and, in all likelihood, will be my last visit to American Samoa. My travels to American Samoa were very memorable, for a variety of reasons. A few things come to mind.

My local counsel, Thomas “Bucky” Jones, moved his family to American Samoa from the U.S. a few years back and hasn’t looked back. It was interesting and eye-opening to hear about his experiences as an attorney, husband, and father in American Samoa. I look forward to keeping in touch with him and hopefully reconnecting in person one day.

As noted above, American Samoa is not a hot bed for tourists. On my last visit, I rented a car and drove through many villages, stopping along the way to do some hiking and visit beaches. I did not see a single tourist all day and felt like I had the whole island to myself. When I sent back some short videos of my day, my son commented that one of the beaches I visited looked like a scene from the movie Castaway.

I also enjoyed a couple of great meals. One was at the Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. Because it was closed on one of my earlier visits, on my last visit I emailed ahead to make sure I could visit for dinner. When I arrived, I was the only guest for dinner and Tisa and her companion cooked me dinner on the spot. While I was enjoying a cold Vailima or two (one of Samoa’s most popular beers), they cracked open fresh coconuts for a broth that includes fresh shrimp and tuna. It was truly amazing to sit back and disconnect from everything.

The actual work was challenging, as the case involved complex issues and was the largest tax case in American Samoa history. And, being in a different judicial system, I needed to adapt to local practices and customs. One such custom involved the proper attire. While it is perfectly acceptable to wear the suit and tie one sees in a U.S. courtroom, most male practitioners wear what is known as an Ie Faitaga or Lavalava, flip flops, a dress shirt, and a tie. An Ie Faitaga or Lavalava is formal wear that can be generally described as a male version of a skirt (think of a Scottish kilt but with a Polynesian flavor). I wore this attire and have been proud to share pictures with many of my friends, colleagues, and clients.

So, what does all this have to do with pro bono? Well, on my last trip to American Samoa I decided to explore what types of pro bono services were available. Walking through Pago Pago I came across American Samoa Legal Aid (ASLA). I walked up to the second floor of the Letialua Building and made an unannounced visit where I was welcomed with open arms. Although the director was out of the office, I was able to spend some time talking to Dante Harootunian, who had been with ASLA since August 2022. Dante received his JD from the University of Minnesota Law School and was all set to move to American Samoa in 2020 to start a clerkship at the High Court. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in his plans and he ended up doing his clerkship remotely. After his clerkship he spent a year working in Wisconsin before finally moving to American Samoa. Dante mentioned that ASLA did not see a lot of tax cases, but assisted many people in cases involving land disputes and family law.

Overall, my experiences in American Samoa have been priceless. The people I met were universally friendly and helpful. The geography is amazing with several undisturbed scenic sites. And it was great to see that pro bono services stretch to these small islands in the South Pacific. It just shows that there are people working everywhere to provide assistance to low-income individuals.

    Andrew R. Roberson

    McDermott Will & Emery LLP, Chicago, IL

    The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.