By Michael Richardson
United States citizens living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, unlike Americans living almost any other place in the world, are unable to vote in presidential elections. When Deputy U.S. Marshal Krim Ballentine was transferred to the Virgin Islands in 1973, his supervisors in the Justice Department never told him he would lose his right to vote.
Ballentine fell in love with the islands and never left after his retirement from federal service, but he never did accept the loss of his right to vote. In 1999, the former lawman sued to declare the voting ban against U.S. citizens residing in the Virgin Islands as unconstitutional.
District Judge Thomas Moore was assigned the case and sat on it for five years, finally retiring without rendering a decision. However, Judge Moore was not inactive during the half-decade, scheduling two hearings and inviting the prestigious Orville Schell Center of International Human Rights at Yale University to submit an amicus brief.
The Yale University legal scholars complied with Judge Moore's request and submitted a brief that was sharply critical of America's policy of "colonialism" in the Virgin Islands. The brief outlined present U.S. policy toward citizens residing in the Virgin Islands as violating international treaty law and based on the notorious Insular Cases handed down by the Supreme Court in the early 1900's defending U.S. colonial rule of Puerto Rico.
U.S. First Circuit Appellate Judge Juan Torruella is the nation's leading expert on the Insular Cases, which he has characterized as establishing a "doctrine of separate and unequal." Judge Torruella has been uncommonly outspoken and has written, "The Supreme Court continues to cling to these anachronistic remnants of the stone age of American constitutional law notwithstanding that the doctrines espoused by the Insular Cases seriously curtail rights of several million citizens and nationals in the United States."
The Yale amicus brief requested by Judge Moore addressed the Insular Cases.
"The United States can find no exemption from its international law obligations in an outmoded and thoroughly discredited series of cases. In light of international and domestic legal developments, it would be improper for this Court to rely upon the authority of the Insular Cases."
"Someday, our nation will look back on its treatment of the Virgin Islands and other non-self-governing territories with the shame with which we now look at slavery and segregation."
Judge Moore retired without ruling on Ballentine's case and two other federal judges stationed in the Virgin Islands refused to hear the case. Ballentine sought supervision by the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals who assigned New Jersey U.S. District Court Judge Anne Thompson to hear the case. In September, Judge Thompson finally issued a ruling dismissing Ballentine's case. Once again, the ugly discrimination rooted in the Insular Cases was at issue.
"The Court notes that Judge Moore explored the racist underpinnings of the Insular Cases; cases decided in a time of colonial expansion by the United States into lands already occupied by non-white populations....The Court further notes the considerable doubt Judge Moore expressed as to the applicability of the Insular Cases to decisions relating to the Virgin Islands. Like Judge Moore, this Court regrets the enduring "vitality" of the Insular Cases which, articulate the Constitution's limits on the government's ability to intrude in the lives of its citizens, depending on the physical location of those citizens....Nonetheless, this Court is bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court."
Ballentine has appealed and the case is now pending before the appellate court where America's racist judicial legacy will once again be the subject of legal debate.
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