On October 10, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in Davis v. Guam, a case challenging a race-exclusive plebiscite planned by the Government of Guam. Guam resident Arnold (Dave) Davis was turned away from registering to vote because he is not descended from a native Chamorro. The race-based restriction was struck down by the US District Court for the District of Guam in March, 2017 on the grounds that it unconstitutionally limits the right to vote on the basis of race. The Government of Guam appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit.
CIR challenges Guam plebiscite
Plaintiff Arnold “Dave” Davis
IR is representing Guam resident Arnold Davis in a class action lawsuit challenging a race-exclusive plebiscite on the question of whether Guam should seek independence from the United States, statehood, or some other relationship.
Although a territory of the United States and subject to the Constitution’s guarantees of non-discrimination, Guam law permits only those who meet the definition of “Native Inhabitants of Guam” to vote in the plebiscite. CIR’s complaint alleges that the definition of this term was designed to limit the vote to “Chamorros,” a racial designation referring to the original inhabitants of Guam and their descendants. This group comprises about thirty-six percent of the population of Guam. The law pointedly excludes most Caucasian, black, Korean, Chinese, and Filipino citizens of the United States living on Guam and otherwise registered to vote in Guam elections.
Having been a territory of the United States since 1898, Guam apparently has decided to hold a referendum on its future relation with the United States without allowing nearly two-thirds of its lawfully registered voters to vote — all of them citizens of the United States.
DOJ refuses to act
As troubling as this overtly discriminatory law is, even more difficult to comprehend is the Justice Department’s failure to take action against it. Despite its clear authority to enforce federal laws prohibiting race discrimination in voting, the Justice Department declined to intervene when presented with a complaint by Guam resident Arnold Davis, the plaintiff in CIR’s suit. Davis, a retired officer in the U.S. Air Force, was told he couldn’t register because he was not descended from a native inhabitant; Davis communicated all this to Department officials, but the Department declined to pursue the matter. According to sources, this decision came from political appointees in the Civil Rights Division.
Co-counsel J. Christian Adams
The Guam plebiscite bears a strong similarity to Hawaiian laws that formerly limited certain elections to Native Hawaiians. The Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in Rice v. Cayetano in 2000. Presumably to get around this problem, Guam claims its plebiscite is not limited by race, but only to native “inhabitants.” But this turns out to be a pretext — the law defining “native inhabitant” excludes virtually everyone but “Chamorros.” And even if “native inhabitant” didn’t exclude other racial groups, it would still violate the Constitution. Voting cannot be conditioned on the accident of one’s descent. It must be available to all residents on the same terms.
Guam’s status as a U.S. territory has enabled the island to attract individuals from many other countries, notably Korea and the Philippines, who now call Guam their home. In addition, U.S. citizens, including retired members of the U.S. military, have become permanent residents of the island. Yet now, almost two-thirds of the island’s residents face disenfranchisement at the hands of the controlling racial group.
The plebiscite is part of a political campaign being waged by a group of Chamorros intent on preserving their power over island affairs. Their tactic is the odious one of building a racial identity for a favored “native” race in opposition to “other” races. Understanding the irrationality of this kind of racial politics, the Constitution does not permit legal classifications built on race.
Though it would be theoretically possible for Guam to secede from the United States in order to pursue its campaign of racial identity, it is not acceptable for it to claim the authority and protection of the United States Constitution and its laws all the while flouting their fundamental principles. And no principle is more fundamental to American democracy than the idea that all citizens have the right to vote regardless of race.