By Howard Hills
In 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Balzac v. Puerto Rico that statutory U.S. citizenship granted by Congress in Puerto Rico did not incorporate the territory into the union. Accordingly, under Balzac, the federal government in perpetuity can govern U.S. citizens in “unincorporated” territories outside the Constitution’s protection of equal rights, as guaranteed to citizens in territories incorporated into the union, as well as fully equal rights of citizens in the states.
For a century, the Balzac ruling has limited “fundamental rights” of Americans in Puerto Rico to those permitted at the discretion of Congress and federal judges, without democratic representation of citizens in Puerto Rico in making those laws. Because that is the the same status the people of Puerto Rico had as non-citizens under the 1901 case of Downes v. Bidwell, the court’s 1922 ruling in Balzac made a mockery of statutory citizenship in Puerto Rico by cynically inviting Americans who wanted full equality that comes only from statehood to relocate from the unincorporated territory to a state to secure fully equal rights.
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. Vaello-Madero. The court’s ruling will decide whether those Americans who accepted the court’s invitation in Balzac to move to a state actually acquire equal rights as promised. The specific issue in the Vaello-Madero case is whether a disabled or blind elderly person among 3.2 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico can secure equal benefits under federal social safety net statutes denied under Balzac by moving to a state, only to then lose those rights upon returning to reside in Puerto Rico.
The Vaello-Madero case
Mr. Madero was sued by the federal government for return of $28,000 in benefits he received at the rate of $720 a month after relocating from a state to a U.S. territory, and was even threatened with prosecution. Many people in Puerto Rico and throughout the nation hope the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the rights of Mr. Vaello-Maderoone American in the Vaello-Madero case by overruling the Balzac case, which for the first time in American constitutional history applied the unincorporated territory doctrine of the Downes case to territories in which Congress conferred statutory U.S. citizenship. Like the 1954 case of Brown v Board of Education that overturned discrimination against Americans based on race, overturning Balzac in the Vaello-Madero case being heard tomorrow would end discrimination against Americans in Puerto Rico based on residence in a territory not incorporated into the union under the Constitution.
However, even if the court rules that Americans in Puerto Rico have rights equal to Americans in the 32 territories that were treated as incorporated into the union before admission to statehood, that will not give the Americans in Puerto Rico the same equal rights of U.S. citizenship that come only with admission to the union as a state. That is why the people of 33 current states, including culturally diverse Alaska and Hawaii, as well as the independent Republic of Texas, chose admission to the union with fully equal citizenship over any form of self-government attainable under territorial status, or any form of autonomous association with the U.S. other than statehood.
Accordingly, we hope that the court acts to mitigate discrimination based on the Balzac ruling of 1922, based on location of residence within the borders of the United States by Americans who under federal law pay federal taxes and owe the same allegiance to the U.S. as citizens in the states. But until full equal rights ends discrimination and denial of full equal representation in the national constitutional process that are possible only through statehood, the cause, struggle and fight of those who seek full government by consent of the governed will be for Puerto Rico’s admission as a state of the union.
Howard Hills is a former legal advisor on territorial status in the Executive Office of the President, National Security Council and U.S. State Department. He is author of the book Citizens Without A State. Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not any other person or entity.