US Supreme Court hears case on Oversight Board appointments, could review the Insular Cases

by Oct 15, 2019Courts, Headlines0 comments

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court’s nine Justices squarely faced the question of where the Insular Cases stand as they consider whether the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. This follows concerns two Justices raised about the Insular Cases last week that hint to the possibility that after more than a century there may finally be interest on the Court to reconsider the Insular Cases. During the actual oral arguments however, the Justices seemed to focus more on whether the board was primary or purely local powers versus federal national powers, and the implication that would have on whether the members are considered federal officers.

Attorney Jessica Mendez-Colberg representing UTIER (the Electric and Distribution Industry Workers Union of Puerto Rico) was the only one to raise the issue of the Insular Cases during the hearing, and she faced skeptical questioning, in particular from Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts expressed skepticism about the applicability of the Insular Cases in this particular case, to which Mendez-Colberg replied asserting they established the basis for the government’s position.

Nonetheless, the possibility remains that, like they did with Korematsu v US, the Supreme Court overturns the Insular Cases even if they find they don’t directly apply to the case at hand.

Potential historic consequences

“The Insular Cases and the doctrine of territorial incorporation have rightly been criticized for creating a second-class status for residents of so-called ‘unincorporated’ territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands based on the racist view that Caribbean and Pacific islands acquired by the United States after the Spanish American War were populated by ‘alien races’ and ‘savage people.’” said Neil Weare, President of Equally American, a nonprofit that seeks to advance equality and civil rights for the nearly 4 million American citizens living in US territories. Equally American filed an amicus brief in Tuesday’s case calling on the Supreme Court to overrule the Insular Cases. “The Supreme Court should overrule its shameful rulings in the Insular Cases this Term, just as it overruled its shameful ruling in the Japanese internment case, Korematsu v United States, last Term.”

During oral argument last week in Ramos v Louisiana, a case involving whether the Constitution guarantees a right to a unanimous jury verdict, Justice Stephen Breyer raised concerns that the Supreme Court “might have to revise” the Insular Cases. In the same argument, Justice Samuel Alito raised whether the Court “should brush aside” what he characterized as “the old Insular Cases that reflect attitudes of the day.” Both Justices may have been thinking ahead to this Tuesday’s consolidated argument in Financial Oversight and Management Board v. Aurelius Investment, LLC, where the First Circuit acknowledged earlier this year that the territorial incorporation doctrine created by the Insular Cases “hovers like a dark cloud.”

Significantly, parties on both sides of the dispute now argue that the Court should overrule the Insular Cases. On one side, the government of Puerto Rico has expressly argued for overruling the Insular Cases, even as it supports the constitutionality of the board. On the other side, UTIER, believes the board is unconstitutional, but also strongly argues the Insular Cases should be overruled. Mendez-Colberg, a young Puerto Rican attorney making her first argument before the Supreme Court, had ten minutes to make her case to the Court.

Notably, the United States now also expressly disavows any reliance on the Insular Cases to support the constitutionality of the board, even as it relied upon them extensively before the district court. Other parties continue to rely on the Insular Cases to argue in favor of the Board’s constitutionality.

In addition to Equally American, a number of other amicus parties have also filed briefs before the Supreme Court calling on it to use this opportunity to overrule the Insular Cases, including:

Equally American, and these other amicus parties, took no position on the merits of the dispute. A decision is not expected until later this year or early next year.