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Can Puerto Rico Have Equality Without Statehood?

Territorial rights activist Neil Weare has been raising funds from donors in the U.S. territories since 2013 for “We the People Project” (WTPP). As founder and President of WTPP, Mr. Weare uses the non-profit’s funds to bring lawsuits on behalf of carefully selected individual clients denied full citizenship rights while residing in U.S. territories.

There are five territories with local civilian governments organized under federal law: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.  Federal territorial possessions not within a State are governed under U.S. sovereignty, federal law is supreme, and democratic self-government is limited to local matters not otherwise determined by the U.S. Congress in the exercise of its territorial powers.

Weare’s master plan is for WTPP to secure for residents of all five organized territories the same birthright U.S. citizenship and voting rights in federal elections the U.S. Constitution and federal law currently secure exclusively for Americans born and eligible to vote in a State of the Union.  WTPP has convinced some leaders and donors in the territories that Weare can end exclusive allocation of political power to citizens of States, arguably the most fundamental pillar of the American system of constitutional federalism.

WTPP does not oppose statehood as the historically and constitutionally normative status solution to secure full citizenship for Puerto Rico. However, WTPP is on the record asserting that all territories including Puerto Rico can have the full political rights of States without becoming a State.  If true, then as a territory Puerto Rico essentially would have the “enhanced” status that the anti-statehood “commonwealth” party in Puerto Rico has proposed – and Congress has rejected – for 65 years.

Weare has persuaded many territorial residents he can deliver them from the current injustice of less than equal rights of nationality and citizenship under federal territorial law.  Since the U.S. Congress has balked on territorial status solutions, Weare has dedicated years to finding a federal judge who will rule that Americans in territories with U.S. nationality or statutory citizenship have the same constitutionally defined citizenship rights as residents of the States.

Weare’s first “test case” was Tuaua v. United States.  WTPP supported clients selected by Weare who sued the federal government in the U.S. District Court for Washington D.C. for limiting rights of U.S. nationality in American Samoa.  In doing so Weare alleged the U.S. was unconstitutionally denying in all five territories the same birthright citizenship conferred upon birth in a State under the National Citizenship Clause added to the U.S. Constitution by the 14th Amendment.

While a few individual clients from American Samoa joined Weare’s lawsuit, that island territory’s Governor, Attorney General, Legislature and non-voting Delegate in the U.S. Congress intervened in opposition to Weare’s legal case.  American Samoa’s traditional and elected leaders insisted any change in the political or legal status of territorial peoples should be through an act of democratic self-determination in the islands, not by federal court edict issued at the behest of Weare and WTPP.

Weare lost his claim demanding court imposed national citizenship in all five territories by direct application of the citizenship clause in the 14th amendment to territories as well as States. Contrary to Weare’s legal thinking, the relevant provision of the 14th Amendment actually links and combines national and State citizenship, so it should not have been surprising that the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. threw Weare’s lawsuit out on the merits.

He appealed and lost again in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and his attempt to appeal further was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The response by WTPP to failure of the Tuaua case will be examined tomorrow in the second and final installment of this two-part series.

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