Rassmussen v. United States

The Insular Cases are several U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning the status of territories acquired by the United States in the Spanish-American War (1898). The name "insular" derives from the fact that these territories are islands and were administered by the War Department's Bureau of Insular Affairs. The cases were in essence the court's response to a major issue of the 1900 presidential election and the American Anti-Imperialist League, summarized by the phrase "Does the Constitution follow the flag?" Essentially, the Supreme Court said that full constitutional rights did not automatically extend to all areas under American control. The "deepest ramification" of the Insular Cases is that inhabitants of unincorporated territories such as Puerto Rico, "even if they are U.S. citizens", may have no constitutional rights, such as to remain part of the United States if the United States chooses to engage in de-annexation.[1]

In 1898 the United States annexed Hawaii. Also during that year, the Treaty of Paris (which entered into force April 11, 1899) ended the Spanish American War and the United States gained the islands of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Additionally, Cuba remained under the jurisdiction of the United States Military Government until its independence on May 20, 1902. At the time, there was a debate on how to govern these new territories since nothing was said about it in the U.S. Constitution. In the Insular (i.e., island-related) Cases, the Supreme Court of the United States established the framework for applying the Constitution to these islands.

From 1901 to 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of opinions known as the Insular Cases held that the Constitution extended ex proprio vigore to the territories. However, the Court in these cases also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation. Under the same, the Constitution applied fully only in incorporated territories such as Alaska and Hawaii, whereas it applied only partially in the new unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

List of Insular Cases

Various authorities have listed what they consider are the legitimate constituents of the Insular Cases.

Juan R. Torruella, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the Federal Court for the District of Puerto Rico) considers that the landmark decisions consisted of six fundamental cases only, all decided in 1901: "strictly speaking the Insular Cases are the original six opinions issued concerning acquired territories as a result of the 1898 Treaty of Paris".[2] These six cases were:[3]

Other authorities, such as José Trías Monge, former Chief Justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, states that the list also includes these additional two cases also decided in 1901:[4]

  • Dooley v. United States, 183 U.S. 151 (1901)
  • Fourteen Diamond Rings v. United States, 183 U.S. 176 (1901)

Law Professor Pedro A. Malavet,[5] indicates in his book America's Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict Between the United States and Puerto Rico that while many law experts include cases from 1903 to 1979, some scholars limit the number of cases in the list to just nine, also adding Crossman v. United States, 182 U.S. 221 (1901) to the list above as separate from the Goetze v. United States, 182 U.S. 221 (1901) case.[5]

Two-thirds (i.e., six) of the nine Insular Cases referred specifically to cases involving only Puerto Rico.[5]

Some authorities, such as Efren Rivera Ramos, a constitutional law professor, and expert on U.S.–PR relations, state that the designation of Insular Cases has been extended beyond the first nine 1901 cases to include another set of cases decided from 1903 to 1914:[6]

  • Hawaii v. Mankichi, 190 U.S. 197 (1903)
  • Gonzales v. Williams, 192 U.S. 1 (1904)
  • Kepner v. United States, 195 U.S. 100 (1904)
  • Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138 (1904)
  • Mendozana v. United States, 195 U.S. 158 (1904)[7]
  • Rasmussen v. United States, 197 U.S. 516 (1905)
  • Trono v. United States, 199 U.S. 521 (1905)
  • Grafton v. United States, 206 U.S. 333 (1907)
  • Kent v. Porto Rico, 207 U.S. 113 (1907)
  • Kopel v. Bingham, 211 U.S. 468 (1909)
  • Dowdell v. United States, 221 U.S. 325 (1911)
  • Ochoa v. Hernández, 230 U.S. 139 (1913)
  • Ocampo v. United States, 234 U.S. 91 (1914)

Insular Cases, hence, often include:[8]


The decisions in the Insular Cases have not been without the dissenting voices of critics, among them distinguished scholars.

Former Chief Justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court José Trías Monge contends that the Insular Cases were based on premises that would be considered bizarre today, specifically, that:[9]

  • Democracy and colonialism are "fully compatible"
  • There is "nothing wrong when a democracy such as the United States engages in the business of governing other" subjects that have not participated in their democratic election process
  • People are not created equal, some races being superior to others
  • It is the "burden of the superior peoples, the white man's burden, to bring up others in their image, except to the extent that the nation which possesses them should in due time determine"[9]

In Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S. 651 (1980), the Court applied Califano v. Torres, 435 U.S. 1 (1978) in a succinct per curiam order, holding that a lower level of aid to families with dependent children to residents of Puerto Rico did not violate the Equal Protection Clause, because in U.S. territories Congress can discriminate against its citizens applying a rational basis standard. Justice Marshall issued a staunch dissent, again noting that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens and that the Insular Cases are indeed questionable.

In Torres v. Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465 (1979), cited above, Justice Brennan, with whom Justice Stewart, Justice Marshall, and Justice Blackmun join, concurring in the judgment, cited Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 14 (1957), in which Justice Black said the "concept that the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections against arbitrary government are inoperative when they become inconvenient or when expediency dictates otherwise is a very dangerous doctrine and if allowed to flourish would destroy the benefit of a written Constitution and undermine the basis of our Government".

See also


Further reading

  • 586 F.Supp.2d 22 (2008). CONSEJO DE SALUD PLAYA DE PONCE, et al., Plaintiffs v. Johnny RULLAN, Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Defendant. Civil Nos. 06-1260(GAG), 06-1524(GAG). United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico. October 10, 2008. As Corrected November 10, 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2013.
  • Gustavo A. Gelpi. USDC, D of Puerto Rico. San Juan, PR. Civil Numbers 06-1260 (GAG) and 06-1524 (GAG) (Consolidated). 10 November 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2013.
  • Boumediene v. Bush 553 U.S. ___ (2008)
  • Reid v. Covert (354 U.S. 1) (1957)
  • New Day Films.
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