Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has long been a source of pride for Puerto Ricans, and when President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2009, many celebrated that her nomination provided renewed interest in the discussion over Puerto Rico’s status. Although Justice Sotomayor has avoided locking herself into any position on the issue, an analysis of her scholarly writing suggests that her opinion on Puerto Rico’s status has evolved from an emotional call for independence to a more thoughtful and pragmatic position of support for statehood.
Early in her academic career, Justice Sotomayor wrote her senior thesis on the former Puerto Rican governor who gave the island its “commonwealth” label. Justice Sotomayor demonstrated her pride in her Puerto Rican heritage, dedicating the paper “to the people of my island – for the rich history that is mine.” The paper also describes the ways in which the U.S. presented itself as liberating Puerto Rico from Spain and its subsequent struggle to define Puerto Rico’s status. At the time, the options for Puerto Rico’s political status ranged from statehood to limited autonomy to independence. Notably, Justice Sotomayor acknowledged that she had a “bias toward independence for Puerto Rico.”
Since then, however, Justice Sotomayor’s views have changed, in part because of the influence of her early mentor, Judge Jose Cabranes, who is also Puerto Rican. The two met while Justice Sotomayor was attending Yale law school. While she began her undergraduate education as a strong proponent for Puerto Rican independence, Judge Cabranes impacted her views about being an American and Puerto Rican, and further thought led to her adopt what has been called “a more flexible stance” on Puerto Rico’s status.
This more open-minded stance is demonstrated Justice Sotomayor’s student note published in the 1979 Yale Law Review, in which she advocates for certain rights for Puerto Rico to protect the island’s economy upon its becoming a state. Justice Sotomayor pragmatically explains that statehood is the “foremost alternative” to alleviating the island’s economic difficulties and dissatisfaction with the current “commonwealth” arrangement. She also acknowledges that “a bid for statehood by Puerto Rico has increasingly been viewed as inevitable.” Given the inevitability of Puerto Rico’s pursuit for statehood, Justice Sotomayor’s note analyzes the conditions under which Puerto Ricans should accept statehood, and she argues that the United States should cede Puerto Rico its seabed rights when admitting the island into the union.
Taken together, Justice Sotomayor’s two papers reflect a great deal of thought and the dedication of tremendous emotional energy to the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. Ultimately focusing on the interests of Puerto Rico and its people, she concludes that the most logical choice for Puerto Rico is statehood.