The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2017 ruling that said it’s unconstitutional to limit an advisory vote to those who are considered native inhabitants of the island.

The U.S. territory’s non-binding election would have given native Chamorro residents three choices: independence, statehood and free association with the United States.

The free association option would be similar to island states that allow the U.S. exclusive military access to their land and waters while their citizens have the right to live and work in the U.S.

The territory’s leaders would then present the results of the election to the president, Congress and the United Nations.

Rain clouds sit on the horizon offshore Guam’s Tumon Bay, one of Guam’s major tourist centers on the island.
About one-third of  Guam’s 160,000 people identify as Chamorro, the indigenous group that are believed to have migrated to the island as many as 4,000 years ago. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Arnold Davis, a non-Chamorro resident sued in 2011 after his application to participate in the vote was denied.

Three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who issued their ruling Monday, were at the University of Hawaii’s law school in October to listen to arguments in the appeal.

The 2017 ruling concluded that even though Guam has a long history of colonization and its people have a right to determine their political status with the United States, it’s unconstitutional to exclude voters simply because they “do not have the correct ancestry or bloodline.”

The ruling cites a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows non-Native Hawaiians to vote in elections for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees.

The vote in Guam would only be a “symbolic, but no less sacred, non-binding expression of a political opinion of a subset of Guam,” Julian Aguon, an attorney representing the territory, argued last year.

About one-third of the U.S. territory’s 160,000 people identify as Chamorro, the indigenous group that is believed to have migrated to Guam from Indonesia and the Philippines as many as 4,000 years ago.

The U.S. took control of Guam in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The Navy ruled the island until Japan took control in 1941. The U.S. installed civilian leadership and granted citizenship to Guam residents in 1950.

Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, co-chairwoman of the Independence for Guam Task Force, told the Guam Pacific Daily News that the ruling is disappointing, but that efforts to decolonize will continue. The task force, created by Guam law, has a seat on the government’s Commission on Decolonization.

Leon Guerrero said the U.S. justice system doesn’t understand Guam’s unique experience as a territory.

“The people of Guam and the government of Guam are committed to the need for our island to decolonize,” she said. “There needs to be a way for those who were colonized to express their desire for Guam’s future.”

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