Oct 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

SCOTUS declines to take up case challenging racist rulings about U.S. territories

Photo of the Supreme Court building and an American flag flying on a pole next to it

The Supreme Court of the United States as seen on Oct. 5, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Kent Nishimura /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a lawsuit challenging a series of racist century-old rulings in a bid to pursue birthright citizenship for residents of American Samoa.

Why it matters: The rulings, known as the Insular Cases, dictated that residents of territories do not have the same access to certain rights and benefits because they are "savages" and "alien races, differing from us." Three people born in American Samoa and now living in Utah appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court affirmed a federal law that classified them as U.S. nationals but not citizens.

Catch up quick: The challengers wrote in their April petition to the court that people born in American Samoa are treated as "second-class by the U.S. government" without full constitutional protections.

  • Even if they move to one of the 50 states, they are barred from voting, serving on juries and running for state and federal office — "despite being taxpayers who contribute to their communities," stated the petition, which also noted American Samoa's high percentage of U.S. military enlistment.
  • The legal challenge, if taken up by the court, would have had wider implications for other territories — a group of current and former elected officials of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in May submitted a brief supporting the plaintiffs.
  • Plaintiffs and supporters had hoped it would lead the court to strike down the Insular Cases entirely.

What they're saying: "The Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider the Insular Cases today continues to reflect that 'Equal Justice Under Law' does not mean the same thing for the 3.6 million residents of U.S. territories as it does for everyone else,” Neil Weare, co-counsel in the case and president of civil rights group Equally American, said in a statement.

  • "Today’s inaction by the Justices highlights the fact that America has a colonies problem," Weare added. "The population of the five U.S. territories is equal to that of the five smallest states, yet residents of the territories — 98% of whom are people of color — ... are systematically denied their right to self-determination."
  • "It’s a punch in the gut," John Fitisemanu, lead plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. "People from the territories deserve better from this Court and better from this nation."

Yes, but: It's more complicated than that. The archipelago's roughly 50,000 residents remain largely divided on the issue of birthright citizenship.

  • The American Samoan government had filed a brief in August asking the Supreme Court not to consider the case, noting that imposing birthright citizenship would deprive people of their right to choose for themselves.
  • "For three thousand years ... the American Samoan people have preserved fa’a Samoa — the traditional Samoan way of life, weaving together countless traditional cultural, historical, and religious practices into a vibrant pattern found nowhere else in the world," the brief said. "The American Samoan people have kept fa’a Samoa alive in part by preserving their unique political status."
  • The territory's political leaders, including its House delegate, argued instead that birthright citizenship "should come through the democratic process" among American Samoans.
  • The Biden administration also opposed the case, writing in an August brief that the issue should be left up to Congress.

Worth noting: Both Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch have condemned the Insular Cases' racist and imperialist language and called the rulings, which many Democratic Congress members have also denounced, an embarrassment to the court.

Go deeper: Federal court rules birthright citizenship does not apply to American Samoa

Go deeper