Status questions are now settled for Puerto Rico and other United States territories. They will remain congressional dependencies with little to no self-determination—colonies, in effect—until Congress says otherwise, allowing them to become states or become independent. This week, the Supreme Court decided a case involving Puerto Rico’s debt structure and chose whether to hear a case involving birthright citizenship in American Samoa, two final rulings in a collection of legal challenges from the territories. A ruling in Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust and a denial of review for Tuaua v. United States on Monday effectively ended a budding theory of self-determination in these areas and confirmed a federal legal view of territories that was established during the height of American imperialism.
Puerto Rico’s fight was probably over last week. A Supreme Court ruling in the case Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, which was about double-jeopardy protections for Puerto Ricans, established that Puerto Rico has no real authority it does not derive from Congress. The U.S. House’s easy passage of the debt-relief bill PROMESA stripped away even more of Puerto Rico’s functional self-governing authority, establishing an independent board with no Puerto Rican oversight that can restructure Puerto Rico’s debts and set financial priorities. The Court’s ruling in Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust affirmed both of these policies, clarifying that Puerto Rico cannot create its own municipal bankruptcy code and is also excluded from the normal bankruptcy protections granted to municipalities in states, leaving its only legal restructuring path with Congress. With financial ruin fast approaching for the island, it seems the only legally viable path for debt relief is an upcoming vote on PROMESA in the Senate.