Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) has introduced a House resolution that seeks to acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in the Insular Cases in 1901 and the “territorial incorporation doctrine” are contrary to the text and history of the U.S. Constitution, and should be rejected as having no place in U.S. constitutional law.
Sablan, who is the original sponsor of H.R. 279, said in his social media page that the “Insular Cases” decided in 1901 by the same Supreme Court that upheld segregation laws, have no place in modern-day America.
Insular Cases refer to a series of U.S. Supreme Court opinions about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish-American War and the periods shortly after. In these cases, Sablan said, the Supreme Court calls people living in U.S. territories “alien” and “savage and restless people”—which he said are “antiquated notions of racial inferiority that should not be the basis of any contemporary court decisions.”
“Our resolution recognizes these racist and imperialist assumptions for what they are,” he said.
The other sponsors of H.R. 279 are Natural Resources Committee chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), Reps. Michael San Nicolas (D-Guam), Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon (R-Puerto Rico), Nydia Velazquez (D-New York), Jesus Garcia (D-Illinois), and Ritchie Torres (D-New York).
The resolution has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, in addition to the House Committee on Natural Resources.
In a separate press statement, Grijalva said he and his committee plan to host a legislative hearing in May to discuss the resolution.
Sablan said the resolution rejects the Insular Cases and affirms the importance of equal rights for Americans everywhere, even in the U.S. insular areas.
Sablan said the decisions in the Insular Cases and the “territorial incorporation doctrine” rest on racial views and stereotypes from the era of Plessy v. Ferguson that have long been rejected and are contrary to the nation’s most basic constitutional and democratic principles.
The resolution argues that these cases rely on a racist, Plessy-era doctrine of “separate and unequal” to establish the relationship between the U.S. and its territories, made clear by the inclusion of deeply offensive language such as “alien races” and “people with an uncivilized race” when referring to people living in U.S. territories.
The resolution calls on the courts, the U.S. Department of Justice, and other litigants to reject any continued reliance on the Insular Cases in present and future cases because the racially grounded holdings in the Insular Cases are contrary to the text and history of the Constitution and have no modern relevance.
“The legacy of the Insular Cases—an unequal legal and political relationship between the U.S. and the territories—continues to threaten the rights and interests of Americans living in the territories,” Sablan said.
He said part of this legacy is evident in the continued exclusion of U.S. citizens living in the territories from essential federal programs and benefits—an exclusion that multiple federal courts have questioned in recent years.
The delegate cited three cases—U.S. v. Vaello Madero; Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Administration; and the Pena Martinez v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Service.
He said in Madero’s case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously declared unconstitutional the denial of Supplemental Security Income benefits to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Sablan said the U.S. Supreme Court has taken this case up for review, with argument likely set in October 2021.
In Schaller’s case, a federal district court judge delivered a similar ruling for residents in Guam.
In Martinez’s case, it declared unconstitutional not just the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from Social Security Income, but also their exclusion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicare Part D low-income subsidies.
Sablan said the ongoing discrimination against citizens in U.S. territories reinforces the need to stop relying on the discredited assumptions about people living in U.S. territories and antiquated notions of racial inferiority on which they were based.
Sablan said the resolution is supported by Equally American, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for equal rights and representation for the 3.5 million citizens living in U.S. territories and the American Civil Liberties Union.
ACLU senior staff attorney Adriel Cepeda Derieux said the Insular Cases rest on explicit white supremacist beliefs of non-white people’s inferiority. “They are dangerous relics that stand for the continued second-class status of millions of American citizens. We must reject and eradicate the Insular Cases from law,” Derieux said.