Samoa’s Court Case Has Lessons for Puerto Rico

Federal court claims seeking a constitutional right to U.S. citizenship in remote U.S. territories on the other side of the world force Obama Administration to admit truth about the lack of equal U.S. citizenship rights for Puerto Rico.

American Samoa is the only unincorporated U.S. territory in which Congress has not granted U.S. citizenship. It is similar to the status of residents in Puerto Rico between 1900 and 1917 before citizenship was granted.

You might think the Samoa case would not implicate citizenship or political status in Puerto Rico, but you would be very wrong. In order to sustain federal territorial law and policy in America Samoa and all the other unincorporated U.S. territories, the U.S. Government officially and formally has repudiated the constitutional logic of the Puerto Rico Commonwealth Party’s political status platform.

Indeed, the Obama Administration’s legal position in the American Samoa case exposes as a six-decade hoax the promise of “equal dignity” and constitutional equivalency of citizenship and democratic rights under “Commonwealth,” as an alternative to actual equal citizenship and democratic rights under statehood or nationhood.

In court documents filed with the express authorization of President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Holder, the U.S. Government has confirmed that U.S. citizenship can never be guaranteed or made permanent under the U.S. Constitution for the peoples of U.S. territories classified as “unincorporated,” including Puerto Rico.

The explanation for denial of a constitutionally defined right to equal citizenship given in the straightforward U.S. Department of Justice legal papers is that as an unincorporated territory Puerto Rico is not yet “clearly destined for statehood.”

In the high profile U.S. Court of Appeals case the current U.S. Attorney for Washington D.C. (appointed by President Obama) declared that without exception territories with the same unincorporated status as Puerto Rico are governed by clear constitutionally mandated legal principles and court tested federal territorial policies, explained in the Department of Justice pleadings as follows:

  • Citing the 1922 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Balzac v. Puerto Rico (defining the territory’s status as unincorporated after citizenship was conferred), the U.S. Government legal document filed in the court on August 11 confirms that citizenship in Puerto Rico is not conferred by operation of the “birthright citizenship clause” in the U.S. Constitution.
  • Instead the classification of U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico is granted at the “legislative discretion” of Congress in the exercise of its “preeminence” among the three branches of the federal government in defining the status and rights of people in the territories.
  • In the Balzac ruling the Supreme Court stated that the U.S. Government should recognize “fundamental rights” in Puerto Rico, but the Obama Administration court filing confirms that U.S. Supreme Court “…has found that citizenship is not within the class of fundamental constitutional rights that would apply to unincorporated territories.”
  • Instead, the U.S. legal documents in the pending case cite the 1901 ruling of the high court in Downes v. Bidwell as well as Balzac to confirm that incorporation of a territory and application of the U.S. Constitution leading to full equal rights of citizenship does not occur “in the absence of a treaty provision or Congressional action” construed by the courts to incorporate the territory into the union as a step toward statehood.
  • In that context, the Obama Administration’s court filings note that for unincorporated territories ceded to the U.S. by Spain, the relevant treaty provision in Article IX recognizing that Congress will determine the “political status and civil rights” of the territorial peoples, under federal territorial laws and polices rather than incorporation extending citizenship and the Constitution, leading to statehood.
  • In cataloging the federal territorial organic laws in Puerto Rico and other unincorporated territories, the Obama Administration court documents recognize that Congress governed the Philippines from 1916 until 1947 under Article IX of the treaty with Spain, even after Congress declared a policy of autonomy in 1916, and authorized adoption of a local constitution in 1934 as a step toward nationhood.
  • In contrast, its survey of unincorporated territory organic law in each unincorporated territory, the U.S. pleadings of August 11 cite federal court rulings and current federal statutes confirming that Congress acted pursuant its territorial powers and Article IX of the treaty of cession by Spain in adopting the following measures applicable to Puerto Rico:
    • Conferring U.S. citizenship in 1917
    • Authorizing, amending and approving Puerto Rico’s local constitution in the period 1950-1952
    • Adopting federal territorial laws and policies confirming the supremacy of federal law and nullifying local laws incompatible with federal statutes, in every such case sustained by the federal courts

Thus, the pleadings in the Court of Appeals by the Department of Justice on August 11 confirm that Puerto Rico’s constitutional status remains the same as it was in 1900.

The full legal meaning and political implications of these dramatic developments before the federal courts will be explored further in second installment of this study on U.S. Government pleading in the America Samoa case.

This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.

One Comment

Robert Klitzkie

Puerto Ricans are NOT second class citizens. Except for citizens born in Guam and the CNMI who enjoy a favorable federal estate tax treatment and those in the CNMI of Northern Marianas Decent who can hold fee title to realty in the CNMI, all citizens belong to the same class. It is misleading to say that Puerto Ricans are second class citizens.

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