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9th Circuit Hears Question Over Guam's Plebiscite

By William Vogeler, Esq. on October 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Who are the Chamorros?

The simple answer is: the indigenous people of Guam. But it leads to a more complicated question in a case pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Who should be allowed to vote for the political future of the island? That is a question the appeals court must answer in Davis v. Guam, and it won't be easy.

A 500-Year Struggle

Ferdinand Magellan landed on Guam in 1521, beginning 300 years of Spanish rule there. That ended in 1898, when the island was ceded to the United States after the Spanish-American War.

Under territorial rule, residents do not have full American citizenship. They cannot vote in presidential elections, and they have only non-voting representation in Congress.

Responding to a groundswell for indigenous rights, Guam's legislature created the political status plebiscite. It calls for a vote to say whether the island should become a state, a free association, or an independent nation.

The plebiscite provides that "native inhabitants" -- territorial citizens as of 1950 and their descendants -- may vote. In a lawsuit, Arnold Davis alleges the law discriminates against him because he settled there in 1977.

Right to Self-Determination

Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood ruled for Davis last year.

"[T]he court recognizes the long history of colonization of this island and its people, and the desire of those colonized to have their right to self-determination," she wrote. "However, the court must also recognize the right of others who have made Guam their home."

On appeal, Guam's attorney said the plebiscite is designed to identify "the group entitled to decolonization rights." It's a struggle the Chamorros have known for centuries.

Now it's a struggle for Davis and others like him. Judge Marsha Berzon said it posed an interesting question, one that the law has not yet answered.

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