In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as Hawaii and temporarily Cuba. In a series of cases from 1901 to 1905, the US Supreme Court ruled on the legal standing of these territories and their inhabitants.
These decisions, which became known as the Insular Cases, determined the shape of America’s new empire, says Katherine Unterman, an assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts. The court found that the Constitution does not apply fully in “unincorporated” territories. A century later, after the 9/11 attacks, the Supreme Court would rely on these cases as precedent for deciding whether the US government could confine terror suspects at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp.
With her Arts and Humanities Fellowship, Unterman intends to conduct critical archival research to complete a book manuscript titled, After the Insular Cases: Law in the American Empire. Her work specifically focuses on the ways that the Insular Cases affected people on the ground in America’s various territories. Already, her research has taken her to the National Archives and the Library of Congress in
Washington, DC, as well as to the Guam Law Library and the Micronesian Area Research Center.
“By chronicling the full life of the Insular Cases,” Unterman says, “from the initial colonial disputes to the judicial opinions to their everyday repercussions, I show how abstract legal proclamations had real-life consequences.”
Unterman received her doctoral degree in history from Yale University in 2011. She joined the faculty at Texas A&M in 2011, and specializes in 19th century US history, American foreign relations, and legal history. Harvard University Press published her first book, Uncle Sam's Policemen: The Pursuit of Fugitives Across Borders, in 2015.