Boston University School of Law
In 1820, a unanimous Supreme Court proclaimed: “The United States is the name given to our great republic, which is composed of states and territories.” While that key point is simple, and perhaps even obvious, the constitutional implications of such a construction of “the United States” as including federal territories are potentially far reaching. In particular, the Constitution’s Preamble announces that the Constitution is authored by “We the People of the United States” and that the document is designed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to the author and its “Posterity.” If inhabitants of federal territory are among “We the People of the United States,” then federal actors owe them (and their “Posterity”) the same fiduciary duties owed to people in the States. There is no definitive answer as a matter of original meaning as to the scope of “We the People of the United States,” but the presumptive meaning of “the United States” in 1788 included federal territory, so the presumptive meaning of “the People of the United States” would similarly include people in federal territory. While there are strong textual and contextual arguments for excluding territorial inhabitants from “We the People,” there are also countervailing textual and contextual arguments for their inclusion. In the end, the answer may depend on something beyond the reach of interpretative theory: How strong is the presumption in favor of inclusion that can be drawn from pre-1788 understandings and practices? If territorial inhabitants are indeed among “We the People of the United States,” then federal action towards the territories must conform to fiduciary norms, including the key norm of impartiality with respect to multiple beneficiaries, which would require very strong reasons for disfavoring territorial inhabitants in comparison to state inhabitants.
Gary S. Lawson,
Are People in Federal Territories Part of “We the People of the United States”?
Boston University School of Law Research Paper Series
Available at: https://scholarship.law.bu.edu/faculty_scholarship/1328