The Founding of the District Court of Guam

President Harry S. Truman signing the Organic Act of Guam in 1950, establishing the civil government for Guam and creating the District Court of Guam.

President Harry S. Truman signing the Organic Act of Guam in 1950, establishing the civil government for Guam and creating the District Court of Guam.

The establishment of a civil government on Guam was envisioned by President Harry S. Truman, who stated: “It is the announced aim of this Government to accord civil government and a full measure of civil rights to the inhabitants of its Pacific territories. the accomplishment of this objective will be furthered by the transfer of these territories to civilian administration and the enactment of organic legislation at the earliest practicable date.”

In 1950, a civil government of Guam became a reality with the passage of the Organic Act of Guam (Pub.L. 81-630, codified at 48 U.S.C. § 1421 et seq. (1950)).

The Organic Act of Guam created a territorial court, the District Court of Guam, and vested it with original jurisdiction over cases arising under federal law and cases not transferred by the Guam Legislature to local courts, as well as appellate jurisdiction as to be determined by the Guam Legislature.  Congress later expanded the court’s jurisdiction to include diversity jurisdiction.

The Guam Congress Building, located in Hagatna, Guam, served as the first home of the District Court of Guam from 1950 to 1968.

The Guam Congress Building, located in Hagatna, Guam, served as the first home of the District Court of Guam from 1950 to 1968.

Shortly after the enactment of the Organic Act, the Guam Legislature created its local court system. It also granted the District Court appellate jurisdiction over certain civil and criminal decisions coming out of the local court.  In 1958, Congress approved of such local law by amending the Organic Act to require that appeals to the District Court of Guam be heard by an appellate division consisting of three judges.  In 1974, the Guam Legislature created the Superior Court of Guam to replace the existing local court structure. Thus, beginning in 1974, the local courts exercised exclusive original jurisdiction over cases arising under local Guam (except cases also arising under federal law or related to Guam territorial income tax).  As a result, the District Court of Guam was divested of original jurisdiction over cases arising under local law.  Finally, upon the establishment of the Supreme Court of Guam in 1994 through the passage of the Frank G. Lujan Memorial Court Reorganization Act, the District Court of Guam was divested of appellate jurisdiction over all local matters.

Today, as a result of the above amendments to the Organic Act of Guam, the District Court of Guam exercises exclusive federal jurisdiction. It has the same jurisdiction as that of any Article III district court of the United States, to include federal question and diversity jurisdiction. In addition, the District Court of Guam has the jurisdiction of a United States bankruptcy court and as Guam’s tax court.