The Supreme Court has declined to review a case that many had hoped would provide an opportunity for the Court to re-examine the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court cases from the early 1990’s that are now widely considered to be racist.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the recent case also essentially preserves a lower court position that the U.S. Constitution – specifically the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment – does not unequivocally guarantee citizenship to persons born in a U.S. territory.
Fitisemanu vs. United States
The case that the court declined to hear is a case filed by John Fitisemanu and two other natives of American Samoa. People born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens. Fitsemanu and the others sued in hopes of getting a decision saying that people born in American Samoa should have birthright U.S. citizenship.
The government of American Samoa is opposed to birthright citizenship for their territory. There is no indication that most of the residents want U.S. citizenship. At issue is a system of land ownership based on family lineage. People who are not able to prove 50% Samoan heritage cannot own land. This arrangement would not be possible under the U.S. Constitution.
If the Insular Cases were overturned and the U.S. Constitution were deemed to apply fully to all U.S. territories, these traditions, as well as others that have been codified as laws in American Samoa, could be challenged and struck down.
While headlines about the court’s decision focus on the Court’s refusal to reconsider the Insular Cases, this particular case could be the wrong one to use for that purpose.
How does this affect Puerto Rico?
The case of Fitsemanu vs. the United States serves as a reminder that citizenship is, as the Supreme Court has said, up to Congress rather than the courts.
Statutory citizenship in territories can be given and taken away by Congress, as it was in 1917 for Puerto Rico.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the case reinforces the point that U.S. citizenship for people born in Puerto Rico cannot be guaranteed except under the U.S. Constitution, which would fully apply to Puerto Rico if Puerto Rico were to become a state.
Updated February 3, 2023.