Territories of the United States

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Territories of the United States

Portions of the United States that are not within the limits of any state and have not been admitted as states.

The United States holds three territories: American Samoa and Guam in the Pacific Ocean and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea. Although they are governed by the United States, the territories do not have statehood status, and this lesser legal and political status sets them apart from the rest of the United States.

The three U.S. territories are not the only U.S. government land holdings without statehood status. These various lands fall under the broad description of insular political communities affiliated with the United States. Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean belong to the United States and have the status of commonwealth, a legal and political status that is above a territory but still below a state.

The United States also has a number of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are called variously territories and possessions. U.S. possessions have the lowest legal and political status because these islands do not have permanent populations and do not seek self-determination and autonomy. U.S. possessions include Baker, Howland, Kingman Reef, Jarvis, Johnston, Midway, Palmyra, and Wake Islands.

Finally, land used as a military base is considered a form of territory. These areas are inhabited almost exclusively by military personnel. They are governed largely by military laws, and not by the political structures in place for commonwealths and territories. The United States has military bases at various locations around the world, including Okinawa, Japan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A precise definition of territories and territorial law in the United States is difficult to fashion. The U.S. government has long been in the habit of determining policy as it goes along. The United States was established through a defensive effort against British forces and then through alternately defensive and offensive battles against Native Americans. From this chaotic beginning, the United States has struggled to fashion a coherent policy on the acquisition and possession of land.

The U.S. Constitution does not state exactly how the United States may acquire land. Instead, the Constitution essentially delegates the power to decide the matter to Congress. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution provides that "New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed … by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress." The same section of the Constitution gives Congress the "Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States."Under International Law the United States and other nation-states may acquire additional territory in several ways, including occupation of territory that is not already a part of a state; conquest, where allowed by the international community; cession of land by another nation in a treaty; and accretion, or the growth of new land within a nation's existing boundaries.

Through various statutes and court opinions, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have devised a system that gives Congress and the president control over U.S. territories. Congress delegates some of its policy-making and administrative duties to the Office of Insular Affairs within the Interior Department. The president of the United States appoints judges and executive officers to offices in the territories. Congress devises court systems for the territories, and the Supreme Court may review decisions made by territorial courts.

Congress may pass laws governing a territory with due deference to the customs and sensibilities of the native people. Congress may not pass territorial laws that violate a fundamental constitutional right. Such rights have not been defined concretely by the Supreme Court in the context of territorial law, but they can include the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to Freedom of Speech, and the rights to Equal Protection and due process (Torres v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 442 U.S. 465, 99 S. Ct. 2425, 61 L. Ed. 2d 1 [1979]).

Persons living in U.S. territories do not have the right to vote for members of Congress. They may elect their own legislature, but the laws passed by the territorial legislature may be nullified by Congress. Each territory may elect a delegate who attends congressional sessions, hearings, and conferences in Washington, D.C. These delegates may propose legislation and vote on legislation in committees, but they may not participate in final votes.

U.S. territories have less political power than do U.S. commonwealths. Commonwealths are afforded a higher degree of internal political autonomy than are territories. Congress and the commonwealth work together to fashion a political system that is acceptable to both parties. By contrast, Congress tends to impose its will on territories. Commonwealth status once inevitably led to statehood, but such a progression is no longer automatic.

Further readings

Farrand, Max. 2000. The Legislation of Congress for the Government of the Organized Territories of the United States, 1789–1895. Buffalo, N.Y.: Hein.

Statham, Robert, Jr. 2002. Colonial Constitutionalism: The Tyranny of United States' Offshore Territorial Policy and Relations. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Van Dyke, Jon M. 1992. "The Evolving Legal Relationships between the United States and Its Affiliated U.S.-Flag Islands." University of Hawaii Law Review 14 (fall).

Cross-references

Louisiana Purchase; Territorial Courts.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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