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Downes v. Bidwell

Citation. 182 U.S. 244 (1901).
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Brief Fact Summary.

When Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, Congress established sources of income for the territory, including duties on Puerto Rican goods imported into the U.S. Downes (Plaintiff) challenged, arguing that the duties violated Article I, § 8, cl.1 of the Constitution.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The revenue clauses in the Constitution extend only to states, not to U.S. territories.


The United States ratified a treaty with Spain that ended the Spanish-American War. As part of that treaty, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory. Congress passed the Foraker Act in 1900 to temporarily provide for a civil government and sources of revenue for Puerto Rico. One of the sources of revenue was a duty imposed on Puerto Rican oranges imported into the U.S. Plaintiff was a merchant seeking to import these oranges and he challenged these duties as in violation of Article I, § 8, cl. 1 of the Constitution. Article I, § 8, cl. 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” Bidwell (Defendant) was the government agent responsible for collecting the duties. The Supreme Court decided the case. (The remainder of the procedural posture is omitted from the casebook). 


Do the Constitution’s revenue clauses extend beyond the states and apply to U.S. territories?


(Brown, J.) No. The revenue clauses in the Constitution extend only to states, not to U.S. territories. Nothing in the Constitution indicates its applicability to territories. Language in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments demonstrates that there are places subject to United States’ jurisdiction but that are not considered part of the United States itself. Previous legislation dealing with the Louisiana Territory presumed that the territory was not subject to Article I, § 9 of the Constitution. Congress enacted specific legislation making the Constitution applicable to the Louisiana Territory, demonstrating that it was not presumed to apply by virtue of being a U.S. territory. Although the Supreme Court’s previous decisions have been inconsistent on this subject, the Constitution does not automatically apply to acquired territories in its entirety. The provisions that go to the foundation of congressional power do extend to the territories, but those that operate only “throughout the United States” or among the several states do not reach U.S. territories. The territories are entitled to the natural rights protected by the Constitution, but are not included in the revenue clauses. In this case, Article I, § 8, cl. 1 is clearly only meant to apply to the states. If Congress wishes Puerto Rico to be covered by this portion of the Constitution, it may enact appropriate legislation doing so.


(Fuller, C.J.) Previous decisions of the Supreme Court have held that the Fourteenth Amendment does extend to U.S. territories for purposes of citizenship. The Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments must extend to territories as well. The majority’s interpretation gives Congress unlimited powers over territories, but the extent of Congress’s powers are found in the Constitution. The powers do not grow when the domain over which this authority extends does. The majority’s opinion treats the government as created by the states, not the people and would give Congress unlimited power over commerce with U.S. territories. There is no authority for this unlimited power in the Constitution.

(Harlan, J.) Whether a foreign land should be acquired and included within our nation should be considered before the treaty is signed, not after as the majority suggests. The Constitution is to be followed at all times, and when a territory is acquired, the Constitution becomes the supreme law of the land there as well. No power exists in any part of the government to determine otherwise. The appropriate way to deal with questions related to expansion of the United States is by constitutional amendment, not by judicial interpretation.


(White, J.) Congress may locally govern Puerto Rico but may not deprive its inhabitants of property and liberty. Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory through a treaty, and the people of an acquired territory cannot be incorporated into the U.S. without approval of Congress. The treaty did not incorporate Puerto Rico into the U.S. but left it to Congress to determine the civil rights and political status of Puerto Ricans. Because Puerto Rico was not incorporated into the U.S., Congress was not bound by Article I, § 8, cl. 1.


Downes v. Bidwell is one of a group of cases known as the “Insular Cases.” These decisions established how the Constitution would apply to territories acquired during the Spanish-American War. This case was decided by a five to four margin and allowed Congress broad authority, limited only by Constitutional provisions on basic civil liberties, over those territories. The Court decided Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957), holding that the Constitution supersedes international treaties ratified by the United States Senate. Many believed this decision overturned the Insular Cases, but in 1990 the Court declared in United States v. Verdnigo-Urqnidez, 494 U.S. 259 (1990) that the application of the Constitution to island territories was still determined by the holdings in the  Insular Cases.

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