On Monday, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Puerto Rico native Gustavo Gelpi to serve on the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Although this is the court that hears cases from Puerto Rico, Gelpi is only the second Puerto Rican judge to serve in this position.
His predecessor, Juan Rafael Torruella del Valle, was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Torruella was known as a champion for the rights of Puerto Ricans and was the author of The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal. He argued for statehood for Puerto Rico as the solution to the Island’s unequal position. “The bottom line is that U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico have no political equality,” he wrote in 2019. “It is incredible that in the 21st century, the United States, a nation that fought a war for independence to break its colonial chains, has today what amounts to a colonial empire.”
He became chief judge of the circuit in 1994 and remained in that position until 2001.
The Senate voted 51-42 to confirm the nomination. In his remarks on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) called Judge Gelpi “a true defender of civil rights and a defender of the rule of law.” It has been suggested that the votes against Gelpi were based on his expressed opinions on the Insular Cases.
Gelpi has described the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court cases from the early 20th century which established U.S. territories like Puerto Rico as unincorporated territories not fully covered by the U.S. Constitution, as having “racist underpinnings.”
The Insular Cases described the new territories as “inhabited by alien races,” and the people living in these territories as members of an “uncivilized race.” Many people, including members of Congress, have characterized these decisions as racist. But some Senators who voted against the nomination expressed dismay that Gelpi had written disparagingly on the Insular Cases.
Gelpi was born in San Juan, the son of a prominent attorney.
Gelpi attended Brandeis University and Suffolk University Law School. He served as a federal public defender in Puerto Rico from 1993 to 1997. He will be the first former public defender ever to serve on the First Circuit. Later he worked in the Puerto Rico Department of Justice and serve as the territory’s solicitor general.
He was in private practice at the firm of McConnell Valdes after his service for the territory. In 2001 he became a federal magistrate judge, and he became a district court judge in 2006. He has conducted more than 16,000 cases, including the case of Vaello-Madero, which is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court. The Court is scheduled to hold oral arguments on the case on November 9.
He also taught at law schools in Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Texas. He taught at all three of Puerto Rico’s law schools: Interamerican University School of Law, Pontifical Catholic University Schools of Law, and the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. Gelpí has served as president of the Federal Bar Association.