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Justice O’Connor Ruling Confirms That Puerto Rico Is Not a “Nation”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor placed Puerto Rico in the news when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Yet it is the first woman on the nation’s highest court who has authored a definitive opinion about Puerto Rico’s territorial status.

In 2009, the year that Justice Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was serving as a substitute judge on federal appellate courts across the country. One of the cases she decided was U.S. vs. Laboy-Torres, a case in the Federal Third Circuit.

A Pennsylvania man, Marco Laboy-Torres, was asked when buying a handgun whether he had been convicted of any crime “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” He said he had not — even though he had been convicted of drug charges in Puerto Rico and initially sentenced to three years in prison. He was prosecuted for making false statements while trying to buy weapons.

At issue was a specific point of law: Is Puerto Rico a foreign jurisdiction, or is a Puerto Rican conviction considered domestic?

Laboy-Torres’s lawyer claimed that a court in Puerto Rico would be a “foreign” court, and that Laboy-Torres’s conviction in Puerto Rico was not relevant to his answer to the question posed to him when he attempted to buy a gun.

The U.S. government argued that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who may “travel to, from and within the mainland United States,” and that “[a]ccordingly, the people of Puerto Rico do not exercise the full sovereignty as a foreign nation.”

Writing for the Third Circuit, retired Justice O’Connor agreed with the government’s position.  In her opinion, she noted specifically that:

• Puerto Rico possesses “a measure of autonomy comparable to that possessed by the States.”

•“Congress maintains similar powers over Puerto Rico as it possesses over the federal states.”

•Like the States, Puerto Rico lacks “the full sovereignty of an independent nation,” such as the power to manage its “external relations with other nations.”

•“[A]lthough Puerto Rico is not a state in the federal Union, ‘it . . . seem[s] to have become a State within a common and accepted meaning of the word.’ ”

•”Puerto Rican sovereignty is of an extent and character similar to that of the States.”

•Congress frequently uses the term “State” to refer also to Puerto Rico, and that “courts routinely conclude that Congress intended to include Puerto Rico even when a statute is silent on that front.”

Justice O’Connor also discredited several specific contentions made by Laboy-Torres’s lawyer.  With respect to the argument that “Puerto Rico has its own autonomous government, constituted and bound by a written constitution, and with three branches mirroring those of our national government,” she responded that “Appellant’s great reliance upon this point is perplexing, as the same can be said of every State in the Union (with variations in the structures of those governments).”

Finally, addressing the perennial issue of Puerto Rico’s Olympic team, Justice O’Connor wrote, “Without diminishing the pride Puerto Rico rightfully should enjoy in light of its place in the pantheon of international sporting events, we reject as meritless the proposition that classifications made in the context of the organization of such events find application to the construction of federal law.”

The Third Circuit’s opinion makes it clear that the characterization of Puerto Rico as a “nation” is inaccurate. Rather, Puerto Rico is currently considered very much like a state under U.S. law — but without the full rights and responsibilities enjoyed by states.

5 thoughts on “Justice O’Connor Ruling Confirms That Puerto Rico Is Not a “Nation””

  1. The third Circuit’s opinion makes it clear that the characterization of Puerto Rico as a “nation” is inaccurate.

    This is a misleading conclusion if the intent is to equate “nation-state” with “nation” as a sociological, cultural, anthropological reality. In which case, Puerto Rico is a nation as defined in those terms, just as other non-nation-states nations are.

  2. Very interesting the opinion of the retired judge, and its very sad many puerto ricans do not share the same, but lucklily thety constitute a very small minority

    US Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor and the rest of the Justices have refrained from taking on Federal discrimination against Puerto Ricans (since 1898); not incorporating Puerto Rico or not revoking the appropriate old Insular Cases (1901-1925+) based on racism and discrimination…

    For over 122+ years, the US Territory of Puerto Rico (with more 2d Class US Citizens-American Veterans than 22 States) still face Federal oppression; Federal discrimination; are under the undemocratic control of the US Congress; have NO Federal consent of the governed…!!! PLUS, Puerto Ricans don’t have a Federal Vote for their US President; NO just representation in the US Congress; NO Parity in Federal Laws, Programs or Funds; NO permanent statutory US Citizenship (even if residing in a State)…!

    This is UN-AMERICAN, a SHAME to Sotomayor and other Justices that do nothing to ensure Fair Treatment-Equality for all “WE THE PEOPLE”!!

  4. –“Silence to discrimination; supports injustice!”—
    Research-Exposé (with Facts-Truth-Reason)
    **Equality-Fairness for US Citizens-Veterans in US Territory of Puerto Rico (PR)!**
    “The Federal Government should be the Servant of ALL the People; NOT the Master of some!”
    SUM: Since, 1898 (for over 122+ years)–fellow, but, 2d Class US Citizens-American Veterans (part of “We the People”), in the US Territory of PR (with more US Citizens than 22 States) — have made many valuable contributions to our USA! But, until TODAY Puerto Ricans face FEDERAL unfair Treatment/Institutional Discrimination/ Undemocratic Control—NO Federal “Consent of the Governed”; NO full Rights; NO full blood earned Benefits; NO Parity in Federal Laws-Programs-Funds; NO permanent statutory US Citizenship (even in a State) that other US Citizens have, under our US Constitution; noble US Flag- that Represents all “WE THE PEOPLE”!
    o As Puerto Ricans face a complex MAGNA CRISIS which major ROOT components are–
    *Economic-Jobs; Fiscal-Debt; Infrastructure; Social; Status-Equality*
    *Where each PART affects the other; the Federal undemocratic Territorial (Colonial) Status affects everything. Federal discrimination or NO Parity in Laws, ties Puerto Rican hands to fairly compete on a level Playing Field!
    • The Federal Government (US President; US Congress; US Federal-Supreme Court)- has done some good things, but, incongruently–doesn’t FAIRLY treat fellow US Citizens-American Veterans, in the US Territory of PR, the same as those in the States, even while Puerto Ricans are part of “WE THE PEOPLE”!
    • Besides, it has not taken action to end the unjust Federal undemocratic control of PR, per unequal Territorial Clause-1787, and infamous US Supreme Court Insular Cases-1901-1925+. These based on Racism, state: “US Congress can “discriminate” in applying the US Constitution to a Territory…”! (Solve the Crisis roots; not only place Band-Aids!)
    • As there is a big Exodus of Puerto Ricans to the States that hurts PR’s Economy…; Taxes State-Local resources…
    • Loyal US Puerto Ricans sacrifice; make great contributions to our noble US, since 1513, when their Ancestors (1st Governor of PR) came to the now US–107 years before the Pilgrims; fought in the War of Independence (1776)… as today brave US Veterans-sacrifice; shed sweat, blood, and tears for our US Flag!
    Patriots of True Grit call for Civic ACTION to get the Federal Government to do Right—properly interpret our US Constitution; revoke unjust Laws; FIX the root causes of PR’s Crisis! NOT– make excuses, cover-up, generalize, speculate, distort, stereotype or misinform—as that SUPPORTS discrimination or closet racism, since 1898!
    FIX ROOTS- THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT (US PRESIDENT; US CONGRESS; US SUPREME COURT)— ensure Fair Treatment for all “WE THE PEOPLE”; don’t put Band-Aids on oppression, but, fix the root issues of Puerto Rican unfair treatment—After 122+ years (1898) of Federal discrimination, take non-partisan ACTION-
    • GRANT PR STATEHOOD–admit fellow loyal US Citizens-US Veterans– to our “UNION of STATES” with OWN– STATE PR Identity; PR Constitution; PR Flag; and PR Sovereignty as other STATES have!
    **ALL UNITED- under our noble US Constitution-US Flag-that represents ALL the PEOPLE-States and Territories.
    • Alternative–do Referendum on NON-Territorial Constitutional defined Options, which only are:
    STATEHOOD vs INDEPENDENCE or INDEPENDENCE w/ PACT of “Free Association. Let the People decide!
    • US Supreme Court–Revoke the racist Insular Cases where they oppose FAIR Treatment-Equal Civil Right for all.
    • US Constitution–make a “Fairness-EQUALITY” & Territory Amendment. Don’t leave to wrong interpretation.
    WE must “Guard against a Tyranny of a Majority”!
    *ASK US Congress/ President/ ALL–Will you support FAIRNESS-EQUAL RIGHTS; END undemocratic Federal control and discrimination (since 1898-over 122+ years) in US Territory of Puerto Rico (with more US Citizens-American Veterans than 22 States) through admittance to the “UNION of STATES (Statehood)?
    **OR do a binding Referendum with defined non-Territorial (Colonial) options: STATEHOOD vs INDEPENDENCE (with or without PACT of Free Association)? “Patriots cry for Justice-a Call to Arms (Civic Action)-for Fairness!”
    **You can’t have it both ways; you are either for Equality or support or excuse Federal discrimination!
    CONTACT: MEDIA; US President and US Congress (DO: Resolutions; Emails; Letters; Forums; Town Halls…) Speak-up for Right! *Don’t only put Band-Aids on the grave Puerto Rican Crisis (since 1898), but, FIX it!
    • US Congress:
    • US President:
    ENCLOSURES (Based on Research-Facts)

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