Members Push DOJ to Denounce “Racist” Insular Cases Which Shaped, Limited Rights in US Territories

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, are pushing the Department of Justice to condemn the Insular Cases. From 1901 to 1922, a series of the Insular Cases helped shape the landscape for people in US territories. These cases have helped shape the rights, or the lack thereof, for people living in the territories.  

“The Insular Cases has served as a justification of the denial of civil and political rights to people deemed by the racist, segregationist Supreme Court of the early 20th century unfit to enjoy the full rights of American citizenship although they take on the full responsibility,” said US Virgin Islands Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D- VI).  

While people in the US territories are US citizens, they don’t have the same rights as those on the mainland. For example, they’re denied the right to vote for president and access to snap and supplemental security income benefits.  

“Seeing the effect, the living effect of the colonial racist cases in the lives of people in Puerto Rico,” said Adi Martinez Roman with the organization Right to Democracy. “We could see it clearly after hurricanes Irma and Maria where the disaster response left a lot to be [inaudible]. And we even had a report come out of the US Commissions of Civil Rights about the discriminatory treatment of Puerto Ricans after the hurricane.”  

In a letter signed by bipartisan members in both the House and Senate to Attorney General Merrick Garland, is asking the DOJ to recognize the racist logic in the Insular Cases and reject this case law. Members said these cases broke from the anti-colonial values of our nation’s founding. Members write that “the Supreme Court held that the constitution does not apply in full to so-called ‘unincorporated’ US territories, whose inhabitants, it declared, could permanently be denied any democratic rights or self-determination.”  

“Because they are inhabited ‘alien races’, that’s a direct quote and ‘savage tribes’ they should not have the full benefits of US citizenship,” said Del. Plaskett discussing one of the Cases.  

In a 2022 Court opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the Insular Cases have “no home in our constitution.” Adding that the Insular Cases “rest on a rotten foundation.” He also wrote he hoped “the day comes soon when the court squarely overrules them.”   

“Overruling the Insular Cases will not solve the colonial problems the US has,” said Neil Weare with the organization Right to Democracy.  

Advocacy groups said failing to denounce the Insular Cases will lead us to continue to see more of the same outcomes in the future.  

“Repealing these cases would not change anything immediately it would have an impact on the obligation that public officials and politicians have to solve this unilateral and colonial relationship with the territories,” said Martinez Roman. “It will kind of crumble down this wall that has been impeding or justifying inaction for years and years.” 

The DOJ said they’ve received the letter but will not comment further on it. In 2022 the Supreme Court decided to not take up a case that would reconsider the Insular Cases.