Supreme Court denies equal rights to residents of U.S. territories

The Supreme Court declined to review the case of Fitisemanu v. United States

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to overturn racist precedents set by the Insular Cases in the 20th century and grant residents of U.S. territories equal rights by taking up Fitisemanu v. United States. The honorable and fair justices declined to do so on Oct. 17. It is unsurprising but nonetheless deeply disconcerting that the Supreme Court continues to tread down this path, stripping rights away from people rather than protecting them. I cannot fathom the justification for this decision and condemn the Supreme Court for their inaction in this case.

The case of Fitisemanu v. United States petitioned the Supreme Court to overrule the Insular Cases — a collection of racist Supreme Court cases that declared partial extension of the Constitution to certain U.S. territories — and argued that Congress does not have the power to decide which U.S. territories are guaranteed birthright citizenship. The plaintiffs claim that any person born on U.S. soil is entitled to citizenship according to the Citizenship Clause of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. As of right now, citizenship is afforded to the 50 states, Washington D.C. and four of the five permanently inhabited unincorporated territories: Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands.

There is one unincorporated U.S. territory which is not afforded birthright citizenship: American Samoa. Those born in American Samoa are considered noncitizen U.S. nationals.

Fitisemanu v. United States revolves around a Utah resident named John Fitisemanu who was born in American Samoa but has lived in the U.S. for over two decades. He struggles to obtain a job with the government and is not allowed to vote because of his noncitizen status. Fitisemanu and the co-plaintiffs on the lawsuit filed to secure their citizenship and right to vote in the November 2020 general election, to no avail. Now the Supreme Court has ended their fight for equal rights (for the time being) without so much as a .

It is unconstitutional and discriminatory for people born in a place that is controlled by and considered part of the U.S. to be denied citizenship at birth and/or full constitutional rights. The Insular Cases declared that inhabitants of U.S. territories should not have equal protection under the Constitution because they are “alien races” and “savage tribes.” The cases established a doctrine of “separate and unequal” and have been called out multiple times for being intrinsically racist. Justice Gorsuch said, “the Insular Cases rest on a rotten foundation,” while Justice Sotomayor called the cases “odious and wrong.” The Supreme Court did not issue a statement explaining why they rejected the case.

I am disgusted by the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to hear out the plaintiffs. Those who are born in U.S. territories are not allowed to vote in federal elections, have little to no influence on U.S. politics and have zero voting representation in Congress. Communities of people that were born in unincorporated territories who are living in the U.S. are not represented properly and have less say in our politics than citizens born in the 50 states and Washington D.C.

However, politics are not the only aspect in which people of these nationalities are not treated equally. They do not receive equal protection under the law and are often deemed second class citizens because of the Supreme Court’s refusal to incorporate them into statehood. In the case of American Samoans, their noncitizen status disqualifies them from holding public office and can prevent them from becoming police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and public school teachers in the U.S.

It is the Supreme Court’s duty to interpret and uphold the Constitution and to ensure the people receive equal justice under the law. The current justices have failed that responsibility once again with their denial that inhabitants of U.S. territories do not deserve equal protections or constitutional rights that should be guaranteed to anyone born on U.S. soil. By implicitly upholding the Insular Cases they are upholding division and discrimination, both of which are factors in what is tearing the nation apart.

Post Author: Shelby Hiens