The Inconvenience of a ‘Constitution [that] Follows the Flag ... But Doesn’t Quite Catch Up with It’: From Downes v. Bidwell to Boumediene v. Bush
86 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2010 Last revised: 21 Sep 2015
Date Written: March 18, 2010
Boumediene v. Bush, resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2008, granted habeas corpus rights, at least for the time being, to the persons detained at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. The majority partially based its ruling on the doctrine of the Insular Cases, first set forth in the 1901 decision in Downes v. Bidwell. Additionally, the four dissenting justices agreed with the five in the majority that the plurality opinion of Justice Edward Douglass White in Downes – as affirmed by a unanimous court in 1922 in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico – is still the dominant interpretation of the Constitution’s Territorial Clause, abandoning the rule set forth in 1856 in Dred Scott v. Sanford. The Boumediene majority labels this a “situational” standard that allows it to pick which provisions of the Constitution will be enforced in the U.S. Territorial Possessions and now extraterritorially as well.
This article provides historical context and analysis of the Insular Cases, that series of decisions on the power of the U.S. government over territory and people under the Territorial Clause, and criticizes the Boumediene majority’s use of it to justify the “situational” application of constitutional rights to subjects of United States law, especially to those who are most “inconvenienced”: the territorial U.S. citizens. The article also points out the fallacy that these legal situations are temporary and transitional given that most of the current territorial possessions have been continuously occupied since the end of the Spanish American War in 1898.
I began work on this article a few weeks after the Boumediene decision was issued in an attempt to greatly expand a short contribution to an anthology into an article, and to discuss the Supreme Court’s most recent citation of the Insular Cases. But unforeseen circumstances forced me to move on to other projects and delay its publication. Luckily, this delay has given me the opportunity to revise the draft and to review the literature produced in response to the case. A LEXIS search of published law review articles found 506 articles that referenced Boumediene in their text. When that search was refined to articles referencing Boumediene and the Insular Cases together, it produced 48 article results. The study of the published articles leaves me almost as disappointed as I was in the Fall of 2008 with the level of study of the Insular Cases by the U.S. legal mainstream.
Keywords: Constitutional Law, Insular Cases, Boumediene, Downes, Territorial Clause
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