Judge Juan Torruella and the Denial of Equal Rights for Puerto Ricans

Juan Rafael Torruella del Valle, Sr. is a  judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. A native Puerto Rican, Judge Torruella is frequently sought out for his legal commentary on the treatment of Puerto Rico under the United States Constitution.  He is not happy with the failure of U.S. jurisprudence to evolve over the past 100 years.

Judge Torruella was born in San Juan and competed with the Puerto Rican sailing team in the Olympics four times, from 1964 to 1976.  A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University Law School, Torruella  practiced law in Puerto Rico until being appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico by Gerald Ford and then to the First Circuit by Ronald Reagan.

As a Puerto Rican, Torruella has often been asked to speak about the Insular Cases, a series of legal cases in the beginning of the 20th century which are still used as precedents in decisions about Puerto Rico today.

“The Insular Cases display some of the most notable examples in the history of the Supreme Court in which its decisions interpreting the Constitution evidence an unabashed reflection of contemporaneous politics,” said Judge Torruella in a panel presentation at the Latin American Law Organization spring colloquium in 2007. “…I believe that the United States is in clear violation of not only the Constitution but also the treaties that we have entered into which are of course the law of the land.”

The treaties in question are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Torreulla is certainly an expert on the situation. As the author of The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal (1985) and Global Intrigues: The Era of the Spanish-American War and the Rise of the United States to World Power (2007), he has argued that the Insular cases are like Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision which introduced the doctrine of “separate but equal.” That decision has been overturned, and Torruella says that the comparable decisions on Puerto Rico should also be reexamined.

This has yet to take place. Instead, Torruella writes, “the Supreme Court continues to cling to these anachronistic remnants of the stone age of American constitutional law notwithstanding that the doctrines espoused by the Insular Cases seriously curtail the rights of several million citizens and nationals of the United States.”

When a majority ruling from that court turned down an opportunity to rule on the status of Puerto Rico on the grounds that it would be “an embarrassment” to the United States, Torruella said,

Embarrassment indeed! The U.S. should be embarrassed at its denying equal rights to four million of its citizens in this day and age. That fact itself—–particularly in light of the government’s intense encouragement of democratic reform in other nations and purported commitment to international instruments that guarantee equal political participation by all citizens—–could be “trumpeted as propaganda in international bodies and elsewhere.” Was it “embarrassment” that finally reversed Plessy? If embarrassment is what it takes to give equal rights to the United States citizens of Puerto Rico, maybe a dose is appropriate.

In Igartua De La Rosa v. United States, which challenged the inability of Puerto Ricans living on the island to vote in presidential elections, Torruella took the opportunity in his dissenting opion to “serve notice upon the political branches of government that it is incumbent upon them…to take appropriate steps to correct what amounts to an outrageous disregard for the rights of a substantial segment of its citizenry.” (Read more of Torruella’s remarks.)

Torruella’s position on Puerto Rico is a consistent and recurring theme in his work. As he wrote in his first book, “Whatever the future holds for this island, its people should strive for the equality which has too long eluded them.”

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