John Oliver has influenced the opinions of many Last Week Tonight viewers. But apparently he’s influencing legal decisions as well, as ninth circuit judge Marsha S. Berzon recently cited the show as part of her r opinion in the case of Paeste v. Guam. The case alleged the Guamanian government had withheld tax refunds in order to deal with a budget crisis, and then paid them back in an unregulated manner that put the poorest citizens at a low priority. In her ruling, Berzon agreed that the government of Guam was at fault.
But rulings about U.S. territories like Guam are always tricky; though residents are U.S. citizens, they are denied full constitutional rights based on a racist “Insular Cases” ruling from 1901. The ruling claims the residents of these territories are “alien races” who can’t understand “Anglo-Saxon principles” and therefore don’t deserve full rights.
So, in a footnote Judge Berzon added:
Because the Taxpayers relied on this statutory equal protection guarantee, we express no view as to the direct applicability of constitutional equal protection….We do note, however, that the so-called “Insular Cases,” which established a less-than-complete application of the Constitution in some U.S. territories, has been the subject of extensive judicial, academic, and popular criticism. See, e.g., Juan Torruella, The Insular Cases: The Establishment of a Regime of Political Apartheid, 77 Rev. Jur. U.P.R. 1 (2008); Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: U.S. Territories, Youtube (Mar. 8, 2015), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CesHr99ezWE
Berzon is acknowledging that although her case didn’t deal with constitutional equality directly, these “Insular Cases” have become a source of national debate. After all, residents of Guam, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa serve in the U.S. Army at a remarkably high rate, yet are unable to vote in Presidential elections, send fully empowered delegates to Congress, or—in the case of American Samoa—even be considered full U.S. citizens. She cites Oliver as one example of “popular criticism” against this inequality. And Oliver does seem to have a knack for making these complicated legal injustices easy to understand:
[h/t Above The Law]