Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, has introduced a House resolution rejecting the Insular Cases, a group of 20th century Supreme Court decisions defining the relationship between the United States and island territories that the nation had recently acquired.
Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez, Delegates Plaskett of the USVI (D) and Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands (D) co-sponsored the resolution. Delegate Radewagen of American Samoa (R) declined to do so.
The House resolution bill recognizes that “the decisions rendered by the United States Supreme Court in the so-called Insular Cases rest on the same racist and ethnocentric assumptions leading to Plessy v. Ferguson’s infamous ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, that the legal doctrine emanating from the Insular Cases has no place in United States Constitutional law, and that the Insular Cases must be rejected in their entirety.”
The resolution has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and Committee on Natural Resources in the U.S. House of Representatives.
What is a House Resolution?
A resolution is essentially a statement, not an enforceable law.
A House resolution is considered only by the House of Representatives. A joint resolution is intended for the consideration of both the House and Senate.
What are the Insular Cases?
The Supreme Court ruled on a series of cases about the relationship between the United States and its island territories in the early 20th century. In 1901, the Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico belonged to the United States, but that it wasn’t really an integral part of the United States, so laws could be made in Puerto Rico that were not constitutional. The U.S. Constitution, this case said, didn’t necessarily apply in Puerto Rico.
The last of the Insular Cases, in 1922, held that a territory could be kept under territorial status “indefinitely.” This was the start of the idea of the “unincorporated territory” which could be treated differently from a State.
This series of cases allows Puerto Rico to be treated unequally. They have been questioned extensively in recent decades, in part because the language and the arguments in the cases reflect an outdated racist attitude toward the people living in the island territories. The Supreme Court was recently asked to repudiate the Insular Cases, but they did not agree that the Insular Cases were relevant to the case they were hearing at the time and avoided addressing the issue.
The new House resolution begins with a recap of the history of the United States’s island territories. It continues with a claim that the Insular Cases continue to affect people living in U.S. territories:
Whereas the Insular Cases today negatively impact a community of nearly 4,000,000 Americans living in Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa;
Whereas the doctrine established by the Insular Cases is still used to perpetuate the egregious unequal treatment of United States citizens and nationals in the territories;
Whereas jurists and legal scholars have recognized that the Insular Cases rest on reasoning that runs afoul of the original intent of the framers of the United States Constitution; and
Whereas the imperialist and racist ideologies underlying the Insular Cases must be rejected: Now, therefore, be it resolved
That the House of Representatives—
(1) recognizes the importance of supporting equal rights and upholding the interests of Americans living in the United States territories;
(2) acknowledges that the Insular Cases rest on racist and imperialist assumptions that have no place in the constitutional landscape of the United States; and
(3) rejects the Insular Cases and their application to all present and future cases and controversies.
While the Territory Clause is more often used to justify unequal treatment of Puerto Rico than the Insular Cases are, the Insular Cases contain ideas and language that is often considered offensive in modern America.
The Territory Clause
The Territory Clause gives Congress the power to make all legal decisions about territories. Equal rights for a territory are prevented by this clause. Where States have rights, and specifically each State has the right to equal treatment among all the States, territories can be treated differently by Congress from the States and from other territories.
Although the House “recognizes the importance of supporting equal rights and upholding the interests of Americans living in the United States territories,” an end to the Insular Cases will not, as the Guam Post suggests, guarantee equality for the territories. Puerto Rico has the option of becoming a State. This is the only route to equality with the 50 current States.