Supreme Court Deals Blow To Puerto Rican Government -- And Gives Hope To Puerto Rico

The commonwealth is "sovereign," sure, but still highly dependent on Congress.

In a case that is widely seen as critical for the political fate of 3.5 million Puerto Ricans, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday avoided grand pronouncements about Puerto Rico's constitutional status, but made it clear that the commonwealth ultimately answers to the U.S. Congress.

The case, Puerto Rico v. Sanchez-Valle, has at once nothing and everything to do with politics. But Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the U.S. were watching it closely for clues as to what it might spell for the commonwealth's status -- which is in flux more than ever, as a result of local instability and crippling debt.

With a resounding voice, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that "the oldest roots of Puerto Rico’s power... lie in federal soil." Which is an elegant way of saying that Puerto Rico is not a fully autonomous, self-governing body, but rather an amorphous no-man's-land largely dependent on the United States.

The unlikely case stemmed from a rather mundane criminal appeal by the Puerto Rican government, which was seeking to prosecute two convicted gun runners whom the U.S. government had already prosecuted in a Puerto Rico federal court.

Local officials were interested in prosecuting the defendants, too -- but the two men, Luis Sánchez Valle and Jaime Gómez Vázquez, raised as a defense the Constitution's double jeopardy clause, which generally bars two separate prosecutions for "the same offense."

Justice Elena Kagan was the author of the majority opinion in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez-Valle, a low-profile case that could non
Justice Elena Kagan was the author of the majority opinion in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez-Valle, a low-profile case that could nonetheless have political repercussions in Puerto Rico.

In a controversial ruling replete with politically charged language, the liberal high court of Puerto Rico agreed with the defendants, leading the Puerto Rican government to mount a fierce appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. (While the case was pending, the Puerto Rican governor threw a fit about a brief the federal government submitted to the court.)

And in a major blow to the current government of Puerto Rico, the Supreme Court upheld that decision -- ruling that local prosecutors cannot go after the two men because the island's power to prosecute is ultimately derived from Congress.

"Back of the Puerto Rican people and their Constitution, the 'ultimate' source of prosecutorial power remains the U.S. Congress, just as back of a city’s charter lies a state government," wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the majority.

To reach that conclusion, Kagan cited Puerto Rico's history and its relationship with the United States -- how it became a territory of the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War; how Congress gradually granted authority to the island under various laws; and how the passage of Public Law 600, in the 1950s, authorized a limited form of self-government for Puerto Rico.

That law gave Puerto Ricans a certain kind of "sovereignty" -- the ability to draft and ratify their own constitution and more or less "make large-scale choices about their own political institutions." But Kagan was clear that that doesn't mean the commonwealth is wholly autonomous.  

"Congress, in Public Law 600, authorized Puerto Rico’s constitution-making process in the first instance," she wrote. "The people of a territory could not legally have initiated that process on their own."

Congress, in Public Law 600, authorized Puerto Rico’s constitution-making process in the first instance; the people of a territory could not legally have initiated that process on their own. Justice Elena Kagan

"Put simply," she went on, "Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges. That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico’s prosecutors -- as it is for the Federal Government’s. The island’s Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain."

Congress, in other words, is the body that provides "the indispensable stamp of approval" for Puerto Rico's affairs. And that means the two men at the center of the case, having already been prosecuted by the United States, can't be prosecuted again by Puerto Rico for illegal gun sales.

This language, removed from the criminal context, is absolutely brutal to those in Puerto Rico who cling to the status quo, and could very likely fuel political action in favor of Puerto Rican statehood -- a path that could allow the island to emerge from its fiscal hole, bring stability to its residents and give it representation in Congress.

There's language elsewhere in the opinion -- about Puerto Rico's "wide-ranging self-rule" and its ability to aspire to "a wide variety of futures" -- that's sure to be fodder for these conversations, even as Congress weighs legislation to help Puerto Rico survive or at least ride out its nearly $70 billion in debt. (The Supreme Court has yet to rule in a separate case dealing with part of this debt.)

Notably, Justice Sonia Sotomayor -- who is of Puerto Rican descent -- dissented from the court's majority but did not write her own opinion. Instead, she joined Justice Stephen Breyer, whose reading of Puerto Rico's history, and its decades of symbiosis with the United States, led him to conclude that the island is owed greater sovereignty than the majority of justices seemed to acknowledge.

"This history of statutes, language, organic acts, traditions, statements, and other actions, taken by all three branches of the Federal Government and by Puerto Rico, convinces me that... the 'source' of Puerto Rico’s criminal law ceased to be the U.S. Congress and became Puerto Rico itself, its people, and its constitution," Breyer wrote.

The Supreme Court, of course, doesn't have the final word about Puerto Rico's future. Only Congress -- and Puerto Ricans themselves -- will have to act.

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