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What Is Sovereignty?

Terms like “free association” and “commonwealth” can understandably be confusing because there is actual disagreement or a lack of awareness of what those words mean, but “sovereignty” should not cause as much confusion as it does. Sovereignty is about power: specifically, who has the power?

The Supreme Court in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle determined that Puerto Rico, unlike the states, is not sovereign.  Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has “plenary” — that is, complete — authority over Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories.

States have sovereignty

In the same decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that the 50 states have sovereignty. The United States, they said, is  “a union of States[ alike] in power, dignity and authority.”

The 10th amendment to the Constitution says that states have power over anything that is not covered in the U.S. Constitution.

What is not covered by the Constitution? Here are a few examples:

  • Language, as in language spoken or official languages
  • Education
  • Laws on many subjects
  • Most business regulations
  • Most taxes
  • Licensing for hunting, marriage, and so forth
  • Elections
  • Police forces and internal security
  • Many labor laws
  • Holidays and other cultural matters

States can’t declare war or print their own currency, but they have a great deal of power.

Nations have sovereignty

Independent countries are sovereign nations. Associated republics, or freely associated states, are also sovereign nations. All countries have power over their own laws and governments.

Territories are not sovereign

Territories are governed by and under the power of the nations that own them. Puerto Rico as a territory is not sovereign.

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