Organic Acts

What’s an Organic Act and why should you care?

An organic act is a law passed by Congress to establish local government in a territory that is ruled by the U.S. but not in a state (like Puerto Rico). The word “organic” means the law “organizes” the territory to be governed under federal laws to the needs of the people living in the territory.

Some territories owned by the U.S. are uninhabited, do not have a native population, or do not have a population that wants or needs to be organized politically. These territories are called “unorganized” territories and do not have an organic act. An example is Wake Island, a coral atoll with less than 3 square miles of space.

The first territorial organic law was the Northwest Ordinance, which established the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance was first passed by the Continental Congress in 1787. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the Northwest Ordinance was adopted as the model for governing several territories until they became states. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are states carved in whole or in part from the Northwest Territory.

The Northwest Ordinance in some ways foreshadowed the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, by listing individual rights of the inhabitants of the territory. It described three to five states that might fit into the Northwest Territory, and it said how they could become States of the Union:

And whenever any of the said States shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein such State shall be admitted, by its delegates, into the Congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original States, in all respects whatever.

Hawaii had an Organic Act and Alaska had two. Puerto Rico’s Organic Act of 1900, more commonly known as the Foraker Act, was superseded by the Jones Act of 1917, which made it clear that people born in Puerto Rico were citizens of the U.S. by saying that Puerto Ricans “are hereby declared, and shall be deemed and held to be, citizens of the United States.”

Territorial organic acts often contain a lot of information about how a territory will be governed, how the people who govern it will be chosen, and even what specific federal and local laws must apply in the territory. But the federal government retains all sovereign powers and can repeal or amend federal and local law. Congress also retains power over military and non-civilian affairs of government. The organic acts of many states didn’t say anything about statehood, but some required adoption of a local constitution as a step toward statehood.

Organic acts also govern other federal lands, including federal property within the 50 states. An organic act established the National Parks system in 1916, but such organic laws applicable within the states are not enacted under the power of Congress over territories not in a state. Similarly, the organic act that creates a local government in Washington D.C. is enacted under the power of Congress over the seat of the federal government, not the territorial power under which territorial organic acts are adopted.     

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