Supreme Court rejects major case on rights of people in American territories

The Supreme Court has rejected a major case with implications for the rights of people living in America’s overseas possessions.

The court had been asked to overturn the so-called Insular Cases, a series of court precedents that denied automatic citizenship to the residents of U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa.

Supreme Court rejects case on rights of territories

In this case, a group of Samoans living in Utah sued for birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court refused to hear the case or reconsider the Insular Cases, which established that the Constitution applies only partially in unincorporated territories, meaning territories that have no prospect of becoming a state.

Critics of the so-called Insular Cases say they are racist. When they were decided, the court argued that residents of newly acquired island territories were “unfit” for citizenship.

Earlier this year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Samoan plaintiffs and upheld the Insular Cases, finding that Congress has the power to decide whether the residents of a territory are citizens.

“Congress plays the preeminent role in the determination of citizenship in unincorporated territorial lands,” the court said.

The Biden administration has argued the court’s ruling is consistent “with the long-established practice of the political Branches,” as well as “the wishes of the Samoan people, who have made clear through their elected representatives that they do not favor birthright citizenship.”

Gorsuch supports repeal

Siding with the Biden administration in the case, Samoa’s government has argued that the status quo “helps preserve American Samoa’s cultural priorities and right of self-determination.”

But Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch has argued the Insular Cases were wrong and should be overturned.

“It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They have no place in our law,” Gorsuch wrote.

The controversy over citizenship in U.S. territories coincides with a debate in Washington over statehood for territories such as Puerto Rico, where residents are unable to vote in federal elections despite being U.S. citizens.

Opponents of statehood for Puerto Rico say it would tip the balance of power in Democrats’ favor.  The power to admit new states resides with Congress.