Puerto Rico Incorporated?
Call to reverse non-incorporartion case
Puerto Rico issues will influence the increasingly important group of voters of Puerto Rico origin in the 50 States. However, some may not realize that what they say about Puerto Rico can also have a significant impact on Hispanic voters in general.
First and foremost, Hispanics wish to be acknowledged as Americans –that, despite our origin, we are a part of “We the People of the United States.”
Nothing captures the essence of this problem more clearly than Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, a little-known case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1922.
Most Americans would not conceive of the Supreme Court making decisions about the application of the Constitution on the basis of race or origin. But that is precisely what was done in this case.
When in 1917 Congress granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, it was generally understood that the Islands had been incorporated into the United States.
But, five years later, the Supreme Court decided that an American citizen residing in Puerto Rico did not have the right of trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment because it could not have been the intention of Congress to “incorporate in the Union these distant ocean communities of a different origin and language from those of our continental people.”
The communities to which the Court made reference were Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Despite the fact that Congress granted American citizenship to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico after having set the Philippines on the path to independence in 1916, what mattered to the Court was not citizenship but origin.
In a glaring act of judicial law-making the Supreme Court disavowed Congress and departed from the precedents of Louisiana and Alaska in which granting citizenship to its inhabitants resulted in incorporation. The basis for making a distinction with Puerto Rico was, in essence, its Hispanic population.
The opinion in Balzac was written by Chief Justice Taft. He had been Governor of the Philippines and had lost his 1912 reelection bid to Woodrow Wilson who signed the Jones Act granting American citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
Balzac is to the American citizens of Puerto Rico what Plessy v. Ferguson (upholding the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal) was to African Americans before Brown v. Board of Education.
Note (the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. The decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 which allowed state-sponsored segregation.)
The Supreme Court of the United States held that certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution did not apply to territories not incorporated into the union. It originated when Jesús M. Balzac was prosecuted for criminal libelin a district court of Puerto Rico. Balzac declared that his rights had been violated under theSixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as he was denied a trial by jury, since the code of criminal procedure of Puerto Rico did not grant a jury trial in misdemeanor cases. In the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgments of the lower courts on the island in deciding that the provisions of the Constitution did not apply to a territory that belonged to the United States but was not incorporated into the Union. It has become known as one of the “Insular Cases“.
And thus, Balzac should be condemned by every American who understands the Constitution as a source of equal rights. Moreover, Balzac should be offensive to all who believe that judges overstep their constitutional authority when legislating from the bench.
It is incomprehensible that, after four generations of American citizens born in Puerto Rico, Balzac still provides grounds for The White House to assert that Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated” territory –a possession that is separate from, rather than a part of, the United States.
It is long overdue that a U.S. President asks his Attorney General to challenge the validity of Balzac whenever the application of the anachronistic “incorporation doctrine” is argued before a federal court.
Ninety-five years ago on March 2nd President Wilson signed into law the Jones Act. The President should seek the reversal of Balzac. In so doing, he would acknowledge Puerto Ricans, and all Hispanics, as “real Americans.”
They share with the framers of the Constitution the principles and values on which our Nation was founded, they are equal to them in citizenship and entitled to claim those documents as their own.
For the past few days, the effort to expand our base of support for statehood
has been front and center.
Here are ten links for articles about Puertto Rico move towards statehood.
Courtesy of Alfonso Aguilar, Executive Director of Latino Partnership
Para trabajar por la Estadidad: