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Members of Congress and civil rights groups call on US Department of Justice to denounce Insular Cases

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Congress, Courts, Federal Government, Headlines, Status | 0 comments

A bipartisan group of 43 House and Senate leaders is calling on the United States Department of Justice to condemn and cease its reliance on the Insular Cases, a series of racist US Supreme Court decisions that broke from prior precedent to justify colonial governance in the US territories. Today they held a press conference on Capitol Hill, joined by civil rights groups and other allies who are calling on the Department of Justice to act.

The Insular Cases stand alongside infamous decisions such as Dred Scott v. SandfordPlessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. United States. Yet unlike those decisions, the Insular Cases continue to be defended by the Department of Justice. The congressional letter was led by Representative Member Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, the US House Committee on Resources Ranking Member, and US Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett, along with 28 House members and 15 Senators. Notably, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, chair of the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, House Committee on the Judiciary Ranking Member, and seven other members of the Senate and House judiciary committees joined in the call for the Justice Department to take action. 

The congressional letter follows a filing by the Justice Department last month in which it stated that “aspects of the Insular Cases’ reasoning and rhetoric, which invoke racist stereotypes, are indefensible and repugnant,” which leaves the question of which “aspects” of the Insular Cases it continues to embrace.

Ivan Robles, member of Representative Raul Grijalva's staff, reads a statement during the press conference. Photo credit: Office of Representative Raul Grijalva
Ivan Robles, member of Representative Raul Grijalva’s staff, reads a statement during the press conference. Photo credit: Office of Representative Raul Grijalva

“The Justice Department has made strides in the right direction by criticizing ‘aspects’ of the racist Insular Cases as ‘indefensible and repugnant.’ But it is time for DOJ to go further and unequivocally reject these racist decisions, much as it has for other Supreme Court opinions that relied on racist stereotypes that do not abide by the Constitution’s command of equality and respect for rule of law,” said Representative Grijalva through a statement read by policy advisor Ivan Robles.

“The Justice Department has a crucial opportunity to take the lead in rejecting the Insular Cases. For far too long, these decisions have justified a racist and colonial legal framework that has structurally disenfranchised the 3.6 million residents of US territories and denied them equal constitutional rights. Neither the DOJ nor anyone else should be defending any ‘aspects’ of the racist Insular Cases,” added Delegate Plaskett. 

Durbin stated, “The Insular Cases are a stain on the history of our country and its highest court. To this day, these decisions still impact those who live in US territories. We need to acknowledge that these explicitly racist decisions were wrongly decided, and I encourage the Department of Justice to say so.”

Nadler joined by indicating that “The Department of Justice stands at a pivotal moment to correct a historic injustice and end the second-class treatment of the over 3 million citizens who live in US territories. Our government is long overdue in rejecting this racist and discriminatory doctrine, and I’m proud to join my colleagues in this effort to end the DOJ’s reliance on this odious case law.”

Members of Congress were joined by representatives of Right to Democracy, the ACLU, and other civil rights and social justice organizations.

“The Justice Department has the opportunity to make up for the racist arguments it presented to the Supreme Court in the early 1900s that laid the foundation for Insular Cases, calling people in island territories ‘savage and half-civilized’ and arguing they could be denied basic constitutional rights and self-determination,” said Adi Martínez-Román, Co-Director of Right to Democracy, which previously helped lead a letter calling on President Joe Biden to reject the Insular Cases

Her co-director, Nei Weare, who has been litigating to overrule the Insular Cases for more than a decade joined the conference expressing his appreciation of the action by members of Congress. “We appreciate the recognition by so many in Congress, including leaders in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, that it is time to turn the page on the Insular Cases and the racist doctrine of ‘separate and unequal’ status they created,” said Weare.

Remarks also included a statement from Alejandro A. Ortiz, Senior Counsel for the Racial Justice Program at ACLU, which sent a similar letter to the Justice Department in 2022 on behalf of a group of civil rights organizations.

“The enduring influence of the Insular Cases underscores a troubling legacy steeped in racism. We urge the Department of Justice to publicly reject any continued reliance on them.  These antiquated precedents are foundational to the US’ discriminatory and colonial relationship with the territories and subvert the ultimate goal of self-determination.  The DOJ’s disavowal of them would be a small but meaningful step towards helping redress this historical injustice.”

Alejandro A. Ortiz, Senior Counsel for the Racial Justice Program at ACLU

“We applaud the members of Congress for calling on the Department of Justice to unequivocally condemn the insular cases. The systemic discrimination sustained by the Insular Cases belongs in our history books, instead they are being used as the basis for decision-making about Puerto Rico and other territories. We support Congress’ call to reject the Insular Cases to protect the constitutional and human rights of people in the territories,” said Frankie Miranda, President and CEO of the Hispanic Federation, which has helped lead prior efforts to overrule the Insular Cases.

“We support the Congressional delegation’s call for the Justice Department to denounce the Insular Cases,” said Lourdes M. Rosado, President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which has led briefs calling on the Supreme Court to overrule the Insular Cases. “Our government is long overdue to fully reject the precedent these cases have set for more than a century, and how their racist, discriminatory language has influenced how Puerto Ricans and other residents of US territories are treated as second-class citizens by multiple US laws and policies. Moreover, we would welcome proposals to rectify the historical injustices they represent by eliminating policies that discriminate against residents of US territories when it comes to public benefits and rights other US citizens receive.”

In recent weeks, Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan, Jr., and Manuel Quilichini, President of the Colegio de Abogados y Abogadas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Bar Association), have also sent letters to the Justice Department urging it to condemn the Insular Cases.

“Virgin Islanders deserve to enjoy the full range of civil and political rights afforded by the US Constitution,” said Governor Bryan, who wrote the Justice Department last month in advance of the 107th Anniversary of the United States purchasing the US Virgin Islands in 1917.

“The Justice Department has the opportunity to redress its historic and ongoing error by unequivocally rejecting the discriminatory and racist doctrine of territorial incorporation established by the Insular Cases,” said Mr. Quilichini, President of CAAPR, who wrote the Justice Department earlier this month. This followed a 2022 resolution by the American Bar Association and similar letters from the Virgin Islands Bar Association and New York State Bar Association to the Justice Department. 

In related news, the US Civil Rights Commission will meet on Friday, April 19, 2024, at 10 am EDT, to hear reports from the Chairs of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Advisory Committees that examine the Insular Cases and the impacts they have had on civil rights in US territories. 



William-Jose Velez Gonzalez

William-Jose Velez Gonzalez

William-José Vélez González is a native from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and a graduate from Florida International University in biomedical engineering, engineering management, and international relations. A designer with a strong interest in science, policy, and innovation, he previously served as the national executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association. William-José lives in Washington, DC, where he works at the Children's National Research Institute and runs Opsin, a nonprofit design studio dedicated to making design more accessible. You can see him on Love is Blind as Lydia's brother. He is the founder and Editor in Chief of Pasquines.


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