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Fall 2023 Seminar

American Empire: Puerto Rico and the United States Territories

Prerequisite: None

Exam Type: No Exam

This seminar will explore questions about the status of the US territories – Puerto Rico; Guam; American Samoa; the US Virgin Islands; and the Northern Mariana Islands – under the Constitution.  Our lens will be the Insular Cases, a set of decisions by the Supreme Court from 1901 to 1922 that legitimized the nation’s march towards empire. The seminar will examine some of the leading issues and questions in constitutional law, including: the nature and scope of congressional powers; the status of the U.S. Supreme Court as a member of the ruling coalition; equal protection; the inherent powers doctrine and its racist underpinnings; and birthright [statutory] citizenship. 

There are people who are ostensibly American citizens but who do not have the full protection of the Constitution because they reside in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Territories. The U.S. Territories raise many important questions about constitutional law, race and democratic theory. To take the most obvious one: what are the territories? Also, who are the people of the territories? Under what theory of constitutional obligation are the people of the territories bound to follow the US Constitution? How can the Constitution apply selectively to some American citizens but not others?  How long can the U.S. hold territories?  What does the future entail?