Chair Grijalva, Territorial Delegates Introduce Bipartisan Resolution Rejecting Insular Cases as Racist and Contrary to the Constitution

This release has been updated from its original version to include a statement from Reps. Stacey Plaskett and Michael San Nicolas, and additional support. 

Washington D.C. – Last Friday, in a previously unannounced move, Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced a bipartisan resolution with Rep. Gregorio Sablan (D-CNMI), Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI), Rep. Michael San Nicolas (D-Guam), Rep. Jenniffer González-Colon (R-P.R.), Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) rejecting the early 20th century U.S. Supreme Court decisions referred to as the Insular Cases. The resolution argues that these cases rely on a racist, Plessy-era doctrine of “separate and unequal” to establish the relationship between the United States 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 the people living in U.S. territories.

H.Res.279 – the full text of which is available online at https://bit.ly/3u9UYDL – 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.

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.

  • In United States v. Vaello Madero, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit unanimously declared unconstitutional the denial of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken this case up for review, with argument likely set for October 2021.
  • In Schaller v. U.S. Social Security Administration, a federal district court judge delivered a similar ruling for residents in Guam.
  • In Peña Martínez v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Service, declared unconstitutional not just the exclusion of Puerto Rico residents from SSI, but also their exclusion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicare Part D low-income subsidies. 

The ongoing discrimination against citizens in U.S. territories reinforces the need to stop relying on the discredited assumptions about the people living in U.S. territories and antiquated notions of racial inferiority on which they were based.

“The ‘Insular Cases,’ decided in 1901 by the same Supreme Court that upheld segregation laws, have no place in modern day America,” Rep. Sablan said. “In these cases, the Supreme Court calls people living in U.S. territories ‘alien’ and ‘savage and restless people,’ 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. It rejects the Insular Cases and affirms the importance of equal rights for Americans everywhere, even in the U.S. insular areas.”

"The of the Insular Cases go well beyond the ability of citizens in the territories to vote," Rep. Plaskett said. "We pay billions of dollars in federal taxes, and yet, residents of U.S. territories are denied access to critical federal programs and support. Otherwise eligible citizens in the territories are denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI), leaving our most vulnerable seniors and disabled people to fend for themselves. Federal programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Child Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are either capped or denied altogether. This discrimination against residents of the Territories must end now."

"These last vestiges of blatant racism in governance and interpretation of the law, used today to validate the unequal treatment of Americans in Territories, are staring us in the face, daring us to bring them down," Rep. San Nicolas said. "The question of our time is: will we blink?"

The resolution is supported by Equally American, a non-partisan 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).

“The Insular Cases are some of the most unrepentantly racist and doctrinally flawed decisions ever handed down by our Nation’s highest court,” Equally American said in a statement today. “They effectively stripped the residents of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands of their constitutional and democratic rights in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with the guiding principles that the United States was founded upon. That they endure is both a regrettable legacy of racial injustice and an example of judicial inertia in spite of evolving standards of decency and fairness.”

“The Supreme Court's early 1900s ‘Insular Cases’ rest on explicit white supremacist beliefs of non-white people’s inferiority,” said Adriel Cepeda Derieux, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “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.”

“This bipartisan resolution is right to condemn the insular cases, which relied on racist and ethnocentric assumptions to justify denigrating the inhabitants of U.S. territories to second-class treatment," said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court. "The Supreme Court’s reluctance to reject their holdings in full, despite clear opportunities to do so, is deeply disappointing, albeit not surprising. From Plessy to Korematsu, the Court has played a leading role in some of the darkest moments in our nation’s history. Though the institution cannot rewrite its past, it can follow Rep. Grijalva’s lead in assuring the public that bigotry has no place in its modern jurisprudence. I commend Rep. Grijalva and his colleagues for encouraging the Supreme Court to contend with and rectify its past errors. I urge other representatives to join their effort and bring the resolution to the House floor.”

Chair Grijalva and the Natural Resources Committee plan to host a legislative hearing in May to discuss the resolution.

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