Thursday, July 14, 2011

People v. de la Guerra: Mexican, Inhabitant, or Savage?

People v. de la Guerra

People v. de la Guerra, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict

In People v. de la Guerra, the California Supreme Court held that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo directly granted U.S. citizenship to those who elected to naturalize, even absent any action by Congress. Since his birth in 1819, Pablo de la Guerra had been a native and resident of Santa Barbara, California, which was then a part of Mexico. Born a Mexican citizen, de la Guerra opted to become a U.S. citizen pursuant to the terms of the 1848 treaty. A scion of a prominent Mexican family, de la Guerra was a productive citizen, having served as a member of California's constitutional convention in 1849. Following the constitution's ratification in November 1849, California was recognized as part of the United States in 1850.

In 1869, de la Guerra was elected a California state court judge for the First Judicial District. On behalf of the people of California, M. M. Kimberly filed suit challenging de la Guerra's eligibility. Kimberly argued that California's Act of April 20, 1863, required that only U.S. citizens were eligible for the office of district judge, and that de la Guerra could not become a citizen under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo absent congressional action. Specifically, Kimberly asserted that Article IX of the treaty precluded de la Guerra from acquiring U.S. citizenship under Article XIII.

Article VIII provided three options for Mexican citizens who resided in California at the time the treaty was signed. The California Supreme Court clarified these options in its own words: “One was to remove to the Republic of Mexico; in which event they would, of course, continue to be citizens of Mexico; the second was to remain in the ceded Territory and retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens; the third, to become citizens of the United States.” De la Guerra had chosen the third option and had become a U.S. citizen residing in Santa Barbara, California.

Next, the court interpreted the meaning of Article IX, upon which Kimberly placed special reliance. Article IX provided: The Mexicans who, in the territories aforesaid, shall not preserve the character of citizens of the Mexican Republic, conformably with what is stipulated in the preceding article, shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States, and be admitted at the proper time (to be judged by the Congress of the United States) to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the meantime, shall be maintained and protected in the freedom of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without restriction.
While Kimberly argued that Article IX's parenthetical phrase—“to be judged by the Congress of the United States”—required Congress to confer U.S. citizenship even after one has elected the same, the court rejected this interpretation. Finding that the article had been “strangely misconstrued,” the court emphasized instead the preceding language relating to the incorporation and admission of the former Mexican citizens. From the court's perspective, the federal government could only admit states into the Union, not individual citizens. Thus, when de la Guerra had elected U.S. citizenship following the 1848 Treaty and when California was welcomed into the Union in 1850, there was nothing more for Congress to do.

Indeed, because Article IX required that state incorporation should be pursued by Congress, granting individual U.S. citizenships would presumably have been illegal: “[Mexicans in the ceded territories] can be incorporated into this Union only as a State, and the admission of the people to the full rights as citizens of the United States follows as a consequence of that act; and this is the only way it was possible for Congress to confer upon them all the rights of citizens of the United States.” Thus, in the eyes of California's Supreme Court, de la Guerra had successfully fulfilled the treaty's requirements for acquiring U.S. citizenship: He had elected to become a U.S. citizen under Articles VIII and XIII of the 1848 Treaty, and the United States then accepted California and its citizens into the Union in 1850, including de la Guerra and other former Mexicans as new citizens of both California and the United States.

As a final point, Kimberly asserted that the court's interpretation of the treaty's Article IX would conflict with the California Constitution. The latter, he argued, discriminates by race while Article IX does not; only white male Mexican citizens were allowed to be state electors under the California law. The court saw nothing wrong with this potential conflict: “The possession of all political rights is not essential to [United States] citizenship….[I]t is no violation of the treaty that these qualifications were such as to exclude some of the inhabitants from certain political rights.” Put another way, the court recognized that California, as a separate political entity of the United States, had the power to grant different rights to its citizens than the federal government might.

People v. de la Guerra is significant for Latinas and Latinos for at least three reasons. First, it marked an important milestone for Mexican Americans and their ability to influence the judicial system through the use of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The California Supreme Court's decision to recognize de la Guerra's rights to political office as a new U.S. citizen affirmed the importance of the 1848 Treaty as a vehicle for securing Mexican Americans' rights. Second, the case signified the California Supreme Court's willingness to provide new U.S. citizens of color protection from discriminatory state policies through the use of federal treaty law without waiting for Congress to act first. Third and finally, People v. de la Guerra reminds contemporary human rights activists not to neglect the power of the state court system to secure greater protection for individual rights than the federal government is sometimes willing to grant.

Bibliography and More Information about People v. de la Guerra

  • Griswold del Castillo, Richard. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
  • Luna, Guadalupe T. “Beyond/between Colors: On the Complexities of Race, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and Dred Scott v. Sandford.” University of Miami Law Review 53 (1999): 691–716.
Victor C. Romero

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