It’s not often that Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and I land on the same side of an issue. When it happens, the subject in question must occupy that obscure tangent where progressive ideology and libertarian thinking meet. Points of agreement always worth exploring.
Back in 2018 I wrote a series of essays under the banner ‘A Soft Landing’ which posited ways in which we might remedy the challenges facing our nation short of violent revolution. In the four years since, none of my suggestions have taken hold, yet we have witnessed an insurrection and appear closer to active revolution than any moment in my lifetime. A Soft Landing outlined, first and foremost, the need for a new Constitution. One sticking point that refurbished document should address is clarification about how federal, state, and local governmental entities overlap. A second should spell out not only how states can join our Union, but also how they can secede.
For some three million Americans, my discussion of these topics fell completely short: citizens who reside in the territories.
In a recent Supreme Court decision, United States vs. Jose Luis Vaello Madero, the Court upheld lower court opinions that SSI benefits obtained in one state (New York) are not transferrable when a citizen moves to Puerto Rico, (which does not offer SSI) because the entire tax structure of a territory—both in terms of taxes paid and benefits received—is distinct from the states.
Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion opened with a bang-on statement (link, page 24). One with which I fully agree:
“A century ago in the Insular Cases, this Court held that the federal government could rule Puerto Rico and other Territories largely without regard to the Constitution. It is past time to acknowledge the gravity of this error and admit what we know to be true: The Insular Cases have no foundation in the Constitution and rest instead on racial stereotypes. They deserve no place in our law.”
In other words, there is no place in our nation for the colonial euphemism called a ‘territory.’
So what do we do with the more than three million people who live in Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and a scattering of atolls? The answer is as simple to determine as it is difficult to implement: fish, or cut bait. The ‘territories’ should be given the opportunity to become independent states: individually; or collectively (as their populations dictate); or even ‘glum-on’ to other states.
Logical configurations can be assembled. I can envision Puerto Rico going it alone, or taking the US Virgin Islands under its wing. I can also imagine the Pacific territories coming together, or hooking up with Hawaii.
If a majority of citizens in a territory vote to become a state, we should invest in them such that they achieve a standard of living comparable to at least the poorest states (at present Puerto Rico’s median annual income is only 80% of our poorest state: Mississippi). The US should cut loose territories that do not vote to join the Union, and let them form their own nation. We should provide an overdue financial boost for all the abuse we’ve inflicted, but if they don’t want to be all-in, we should let them go.
A true democracy has no place for ‘territories.’ On that, Justice Gorsuch and I agree.
Oh, and that also means: make Washington DC a state or fuse it back into Maryland.