You are on page 1of 4

Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico : SCOTUSblog

Search Blog or Docket

Lyle Denniston

Independent Contractor



Email Lyle
Bio & Post Archive »

Posted Wed, January 6th, 2016 5:31 pm

Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico
Puerto Ricans have much on their mind these days — like $73 billion in debts that they cannot pay.
That is an issue the Supreme Court will get to later in the Term. But, next week, on Wednesday, its
government leaders will be asking the Justices for something bigger than financial rescue: nothing
less than the freedom to govern themselves (a plea, by the way, that many on the island do not
At issue in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, according to lawyers for its government, is whether Puerto
Rico is truly a master of its own destiny, or has not yet gained the right to stand alone and thus
remains a dependency of the U.S. Congress. True sovereignty is what they say they want.
This case is not about statehood. If that were the current government’s goal, a form of sovereignty — somewhat diluted, as is the sovereignty of
America’s fifty states — would go with that status. The island’s nearly four million people have debated for decades whether to seek statehood, and
they still cannot agree whether to try for it.
The island now has the legal status of a commonwealth, but it has some attributes of self-governance: it adopted its own constitution more than six

1 of 4

01/15/2016 02:31 AM

. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit — the federal court that hears appeals in federal cases originating from Puerto Rico. Both men then separately turned to Puerto Rican courts. overturned those rulings. Gomez Vazquez met the same fate. Castro Garcia — that Puerto Rico is a separate “sovereign” .scotusblog.Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico : SCOTUSblog http://www. when it filed a brief in this case.S. it added. territory. asking that the local charges be dismissed because. The trial judges in each case agreed and dismissed the local charges. which ruled in a four-to-three decision that Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign entity but is a part of the sovereign United States. local prosecutors separately charged Luis Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez with selling a gun without a license. belonging to the United States. Puerto Rico must either become a U. To go further.S. The majority overturned the 1988 decision. declaring that it was bound by a 1988 decision of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court — in the case of People v. make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory . The 2 of 4 01/15/2016 02:31 AM . state or become an independent nation. thus reinstating the charges against the two men.S. The island’s government then took the case on to the Supreme Court. The controversy over its status has now reached the Court at a lofty level: lawyers for its current government call this “the most important case on the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States” since the island’s people put into effect their own constitution in 1952.” In a somewhat troubling sense. but was sentenced to eighteen months in prison. raising the single issue of whether Puerto Rico is separately sovereign. territories as “property” of the national government. the case is a simple one of punishing two Puerto Ricans for violating the island’s gun laws. Puerto Rico’s current constitutional status is technically that of a U. Sanchez Valle was found guilty of the federal charges and was sentenced to five months in prison. But below that historic stature. but only a part of the United States’ national sovereignty. The trial judges thus ruled that Puerto Rico is not sovereign. The two men then turned to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. the Court of Appeals. and its legislature has the power to pass laws that govern the island — laws that no longer need to be ratified by Congress. subject to Congress’s oversight under the Territory Clause of Article IV — which provides that “Congress shall have power to . A middle-level Puerto Rican court. federal prosecutors acting independently charged the two men under federal laws similar to the island statutes. even while noting that the new ruling conflicted with the opposite view of Puerto Rican sovereignty declared in 1987 by the U.. that clause treats the U. the federal government argued as recently as last week. Before either one went to trial on those charges. . but two entities that are part of the same “sovereign” cannot prosecute independently of each other. they argued. The theory was that the U. Whatever the novel status of “commonwealth” means. the charges violated the Fifth Amendment ban on “double jeopardy” — that is. But that is as far as it should be allowed to go at this point. neither of which seems imminent. In September 2008. . forbidden to conduct multiple trials of the same crime. decades ago. the ban on being tried more than once for the same crime.S.. at least for purposes of double-jeopardy analysis. Supreme Court had ruled that it does not violate the “double jeopardy” clause if two different “sovereigns” prosecute under their own laws.

. The federal government contrasts the status of territories from that of the federal government — sovereign because of its split from Britain — and the state governments and U. conferred on them when they adopted their own constitution in 1952 in response to Congress’s invitation to do so. Second. making essentially the same basic argument that the defense lawyers have made: that it noted. it said. dating back over a century. if the actual history of what happened in the 1950s is examined closely. the filing contended. 3 of 4 01/15/2016 02:31 AM . making two points. states are sovereign. A territorial government. no matter what happened in 1952. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court came up with the wrong answer. in concluding that Puerto Rico’s authority to pass laws comes from authority delegated by Congress. that the source of governing authority in Puerto Rico is Congress.” “This case. island court was wrong. the men urged the Justices to avoid getting involved in “the swirling political debates over Puerto Rico’s constitutional status. have never had their own sovereignty. when it exists at all.Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico : SCOTUSblog http://www. they contended that the conflict between the Puerto Rico Supreme Court and the First Circuit may have been weakened by recent developments. does so only by Congress’s creation. so the First Circuit should have a chance to work out where it now stands.” the government’s lawyers contended.. unlike the states. “There is no way. the Court has always focused on whether a government entity has the authority to enforce its own laws. The two men asserted that. and territories are not. holding that under the Double Jeopardy Clause. the Puerto Rican government contended.” the men summed up. not a sovereign Puerto Rico. because it asked the wrong question: federal power over Puerto Rico under the Territory Clause. Briefs on the merits The Puerto Rico government’s merits brief is mainly devoted to distinguishing between the extent of the authority that one government entity has over another and the source of authority for enactment of laws in each.” The Justices agreed on October 1 to decide the case. Puerto Rico’s laws come from its people in an act of sovereignty. “to characterize the Puerto Rico Constitution as an act of Congress. the government argued.” The federal government entered the case on the side of the two accused men. First.. still a territory under Article IV and said that history shows that U.” It created three departments of government and specifies that each is “subordinate to the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico. .S.scotusblog. that basic document declares that Puerto Rico’s “political power emanates from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will. Since 1952.” The brief on the merits for Sanchez Valle and Gomez Vazquez emphasized that Puerto Rico is. Indian tribes — all sovereign before they became a part of the United States. “begins and ends with an unbroken line of cases from this Court. The two men opposed Supreme Court review. territories. . At least for purposes of interpreting the Double Jeopardy Clause. it is clear that it “constituted a delegation of power to Puerto Rico. The ‘ultimate source of the power’ exercised by Puerto Rico is the United States.” Indeed. rather than authority given to its legislature by the island’s people under their own constitution. not an establishment of sovereignty.

Merits Cases Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston. Posted in Puerto Rico v.scotusblog. are on that side.. as well as current and former officials of the Puerto Rican government. the federal government said. as is the Florida organization for criminal defense lawyers. Sanchez © 2016 SCOTUSblog (click for license) Switch to mobile site 4 of 4 01/15/2016 02:31 AM . Featured. 2016. There are only a handful of amicus briefs.Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico : SCOTUSblog http://www. 5:31 PM). Lawyers’ groups from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Argument preview: A lofty issue for Puerto Rico. SCOTUSBLOG ( http://www. 6. The constitutional design for the territories. is that they have no independent political status from their tie to the federal government. all filed in opposition to sovereignty for Puerto Rico.