Plaskett Seeks to Bar Department of Justice from Defending Insular Cases

V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey E. Plaskett introduced amendments to legislation Friday that, if they become law, would prohibit the Department of Justice from using federal funds to defend the Insular Cases, which deny some constitutional rights based solely on residence in any territory or possession.

Plaskett’s amendments were offered to H.R. 4505.

“The amendments have gathered strong bipartisan support from Committee on Natural Resources members and members of both parties,” Plaskett said in a news release issued by her office

The Insular Cases are a series of opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1901 about the status of U.S. territories acquired in the Spanish–American War and the periods shortly thereafter. The court ruled that full constitutional protection of rights does not automatically extend to all places under American control. This meant that inhabitants of unincorporated territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico may lack some constitutional rights even though they are putatively citizens of the United States.

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Those cases are used to justify denial of Social Security Income or full Medicare coverage to residents of the territory, among other things, based solely on where the person lives.

In her statement, Plaskett compared the Insular Cases to the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 that declared the “separate but equal” doctrine constitutional, codifying racial segregation into law for almost 60 years before it was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

“The legal discrimination against the 3.5 million Americans living in U.S. territories – the vast majority of whom are racial or ethnic minorities – is sustained by a series of racist, Plessy v. Ferguson-era Supreme Court decisions known collectively as the Insular Cases, which established a controversial legal doctrine of ‘separate and unequal status for residents of the territories.”

The Insular Cases are now being challenged in a case called U.S. v. Vaello-Madero. In April 2020, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the case found it unconstitutional for the Social Security Administration to deny Supplemental Security Income benefits to otherwise qualified individuals based on their residence. Plaskett’s move would prevent the Department of Justice from fighting the decision in the Supreme Court.

“Congress must now step in and act to deter DOJ from defending the challenged discrimination in United States v. Vaello-Madero and other pending cases that deny equal dignity to citizens in the territories by excluding them from the SSI benefits that all other Americans fully enjoy as part of our basic social contract,” she said.