The Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider whether American Samoans had full U.S. citizenship at birth, a dispute that would have given judges an opportunity to repudiate past rulings steeped in racist language that has helped determine that those from the territories Americans would not have the same rights as other Americans.
A group of American Samoans challenging the current law, in which residents of the Pacific Ocean island group are considered US ‘nationals’ at birth but not citizens, say it is a vestige of racist policies towards the territories. They say the Justice Department, to uphold the law, and an appeals court, to enforce it, relied on the so-called “island cases,” a series of Supreme Court rulings from the early 20th century long criticized. The Supreme Court‘s decision not to hear the case means that the lower court’s decision remains in effect.
The challenge was put forward by three American Samoans who live in Utah: John Fitisemanu, Pale Tuli and Rosavita Tuli, as well as the Southern Utah Pacific Island Coalition, a Utah-based advocacy group.
“The subordinate and inferior national status of non-citizen relegates American Samoans to second-class participation in the Republic,” the challengers’ lawyers say in court documents. They note, for example, that US nationals cannot run for president or sit in Congress. living in a state, they cannot vote and are excluded from certain professions.
US nationals can live and work anywhere in the United States and can travel with a US passport, although lawyers for the challengers note that their passports include a statement reading “NOT A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES”, which, according to them, carries a stigma. US nationals can apply for full US citizenship through an expedited process.
American Samoa, with a population of around 50,000, is one of five US territories, the others being Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Puerto Rico, with approximately 3 million inhabitants, is by far the largest in terms of population.
American Samoa is the only territory to which Congress has not extended birthright citizenship. No resident of the territories can vote in presidential elections or elect voting members to Congress.
The Insular Cases were a series of decisions made in the 1900s shortly after the United States acquired Puerto Rico and other territories in which the court ruled that residents of those jurisdictions did not all have the same constitutional rights than those living on the mainland.
In a 1901 case, Judge Henry Billings Brown called the territories lands “inhabited by extraterrestrial races” which may not adhere to “Anglo-Saxon principles”. Five years earlier, Brown was the author of the famous Plessy v. Ferguson who gave racial segregation the stamp of approval. In a separate opinion in the 1901 case, Judge Edward Douglass White said the United States had the right to acquire “an unknown island, peopled by an uncivilized race”, without having to confer constitutional protections complete. Several other decisions followed in which the theory that some rights but not others applied to people in the territories was further developed.
Civil rights groups had urged the Department of Justice to abandon reliance on island cases and join them in asking the court to hear American Samoa’s cases, but it refused to do so. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s brief that the Justice Department does not rely on island cases in its arguments and neither did the appeals court.
Along with the Department of Justice, the government of American Samoa has also urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case, saying the issue must be decided through the political process, if American Samoans want to change the status quo.
American Samoans cherish their “unique political status”, which is reflected in the fact that they were not born US citizens, the territory’s government lawyers said. The current political settlement allows Samoans to preserve their traditional culture, known as “fa’a Samoa”, says the territory’s government.
“The American Samoan people have not yet reached a consensus on whether to accept the privileges and responsibilities of birthright citizenship – but they strongly believe that any decision on birthright citizenship for American Samoa should go through the democratic process,” the lawyers added.
Of the current nine justices, two of them – liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor and conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch – have expressed concern about the island cases remaining on the books.
In a case decided in April in which the court ruled that it was not illegal for Puerto Ricans to be denied access to a federal benefits program, Sotomayor, whose parents were from Puerto Rico, dissented, saying constitutional protections should not be determined. through the political process. Island affairs, she added in a footnote, “were based on beliefs that were both abhorrent and false.”
Gorsuch wrote a separate opinion urging the court to take up a case in which the island cases could be overturned, saying the flaws in them are “as fundamental as they are shameful”.
The rulings include “ugly racial stereotypes” and “have no place in our Constitution or its original understanding”, he added.