The Supreme Court declined to take a case difficult its 100-year-old racist precedents that proceed to disclaim equal rights to the three.6 million residents of overseas U.S. territories on Monday.
Three American Samoans living in Utah and a Samoan nonprofit petitioned the court in Fitisemanu v. U.S. to overturn the Insular Cases, the court’s early Twentieth-century precedents that enabled the country’s colonial expansion by allowing it to soak up overseas territories populated by non-white peoples while denying them equal rights or a path to statehood.
“It’s a punch within the gut for the Justices to go away in place a ruling that claims I’m not equal to other Americans just because I used to be born in a U.S. territory,” John Fitisemanu, the lead plaintiff within the case, said in a press release. “I used to be born on U.S. soil, have a U.S. passport, and pay my taxes like everyone else. But due to a discriminatory federal law, I’m not recognized as a U.S. citizen.”
The Insular Cases that deny people like Fitisemanu equal rights as residents were explicitly founded on racist premises. The cases, which occurred from 1901 to 1922, claimed that the people of the overseas territories the U.S. conquered within the Spanish-American War got here from “savage tribes” and “alien” and “uncivilized race[s]” who were “absolutely unfit to receive” the rights provided by the Structure. The court invented a recent legal class of “unincorporated territory” for the colonial possessions taken from Spain that denied them equal rights and statehood.
Today, the Insular Cases still govern the U.S. overseas territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In each territory, Congress has negotiated different rules for people’s access to their rights as Americans.
For instance, unlike other territorial inhabitants, American Samoans aren’t officially U.S. residents, but American nationals. Which means that even in the event that they move to a state or the District of Columbia, they might be denied the precise to vote. This was one among the chief complaints made by Fitisemanu and the opposite plaintiffs within the case.
Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch (standing second from the left) and Sonia Sotomayor (seated furthest left) are the one justices known to support overturning the Insular Cases.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Fitisemanu v. U.S. challenged the constitutionality of the Insular Cases by arguing that the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause grants U.S. citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the US, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” As these territories are each an element of the U.S. and subject to its jurisdiction, the residents of the territories must be granted full access to that citizenship, the plaintiffs argued.
For years now, territorial residents have sought to loosen the grip of the Insular Cases or overturn them entirely through the courts. In each case, the courts have refused to achieve this.
There was some expectation that the Supreme Court may act otherwise on Fitisemanu after Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor declared within the case of Vaello-Madero v. U.S. that they would love to see the Insular Cases overturned.
“[It is] past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we all know to be true: The Insular Cases don’t have any foundation within the Structure and rest as a substitute on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law,” Gorsuch wrote in a concurrence in Vaello-Madero.
In agreeing with Gorsuch that the Insular Cases must be overturned, Sotomayor called them “each odious and flawed” in her Vaello-Madero dissent.
But 4 of the nine Supreme Court justices must vote to take up a case. Clearly, there have been not 4 votes to take up Fitisemanu. There have been also no written dissents from the denial of the case.