Puerto Rico’s statehood party went to court today to force the insular Elections Commission to act on the Federal authorization for a plebiscite on the territory’s ultimate political status.
A Federal law enacted in January authorizes a plebiscite on a status option or options proposed by the Elections Commission that can resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status.
Under the law, the option or options are to be submitted by the Commission to the U.S. Department of Justice and must be found by it to not conflict with the Constitution, laws, and policies of the United States.
The possible options are statehood, independence, and nationhood in a free association with the U.S.
The “Commonwealth” party president of the Commission and its “Commonwealth” and Independence parties representatives have refused to act under the authorization. They argue that the Commission needs authorization under Commonwealth law.
A Commonwealth law would be needed to actually conduct a plebiscite because funds would probably be needed in addition to the $2.5 million provided by the Federal law and other arrangements would have to be made. But, as the general secretary of the statehood party said today, the Federal law clearly authorizes the Commission to propose possible ballot options to the U.S. Justice Department.
The authorization is made clear in a statement issued by the committee of representatives of both houses of Congress that wrote the final version of the law.
The argument that a Commonwealth law is needed also ignores the fact that the Federal government can make any law it wants for the territory so long as the fundamental rights of individuals are not violated.
The U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed this authority under the U.S. Constitution’s Territory Clause but some ‘commonwealthers’ dispute it.
‘Independentistas’ recognize Federal authority but want to form an alliance with the “Commonwealth” party for a local government assembly on the territory’s status. Both parties have made status assembly proposals.
The Federal plebiscite law establishes the Federal expectations that a further Puerto Rican status choice would be made by vote of the people instead of by an insular government status assembly.
In addition to pushing the Elections Commission to act, the statehood party under President Pedro Pierluisi, has proposed that the plebiscite be on statehood. Pierluisi is also Puerto Rico’s representative to the Federal government with a seat — but not a vote — in the U.S. House of Representatives
He has led 132 members of Congress in proposing bills in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate that would require Federal action on making Puerto Rico a State if Puerto Ricans vote for the status for a second time.
Puerto Ricans initially voted for statehood in a plebiscite under local law held along with the November 2012 elections.
Even if the statehood party does not get the courts to compel the Commission to act, a plebiscite under the Federal law may still be held. The law’s provisions will continue to be in effect after the next elections in Puerto Rico, which statehooders would sweep if held today, according to polls.
The law was proposed by President Obama and passed by Congress in January because the “Commonwealth” party governor and Legislative Assembly majorities very narrowly elected in 2012 lobbied against positive congressional action on the results of the plebiscite held along with the elections.
The plebiscite soundly rejected territory status, the option supported in the plebiscite by now Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, and chose statehood by a 2-1 margin over the two nationhood options — independence and nationhood in an association with the U.S. that either nation could end.
Puerto Rico’s current status, territory, cannot be an option in the Federally authorized plebiscite because it cannot resolve the question of the Commonwealth’s ultimate status. As long as Puerto Rico is a territory, its people, U.S. citizens by birth, can petition the Federal government for statehood or nationhood.
The new “Commonwealth status” that Garcia Padilla and other ‘commonwealthers’ want also cannot be an option because it is impossible for constitutional and other reasons. The Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations and congressional leaders of both national political parties have all made this clear.
The “Commonwealth” party has refused to accept the results of the 2012 plebiscite because it did not include this status proposal.
Under the plan, Puerto Rico would be a nation able to enter into agreements with other nations but the U.S. would be permanently bound to it and to an arrangement which would also empower Puerto Rico to nullify Federal laws and Federal court jurisdiction. The U.S. would, further, be obligated to give the Commonwealth a new subsidy, all current assistance to Puerto Ricans, free entry to any goods shipped from Puerto Rico, and citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico.
Garcia publicly supported the new Federal law before it was enacted — even as some of his representatives were trying to undermine the legislation in congressional meetings. Their argument also was that the Governor and the Legislative Assembly (controlled by their party) should plan the plebiscite instead of the Elections Commission.
The White House and Congress rejected their contention.
Shortly after the Federal law was enacted in January, Garcia said that he would propose a combination of its status choice process and the status assembly that his party had said it would legislate if the Federal legislation were not enacted before January.
The Legislative Assembly created a joint committee to plan the status assembly even before the December 31, 2013 deadline.
Garcia recently asked the legislature to consider the process provided for by Federal law along with an insular status assembly — but to not act before August.
Because it is made up of representatives of Puerto Rico’s three status-based political parties parties, the Elections Commission can do what an assembly is proposed to do — but without the cost and time that would be required for an assembly.
The Commission proposing status options for the plebiscite to the U.S. Justice Department would also provide for the Federal-territorial dialogue on insular status aspirations that assembly proponents say they want.
Commission versus assembly proposal of the options would provide for the dialogue without raising the false expectations and causing a stalemate on the status issue that an assembly could raise and cause by adopting an impossible “Commonwealth” plan that the Federal government would not accept.
Pierluisi has pointed out that a statehood plebiscite would be fair because opponents and supporters of statehood would have an equal opportunity to express their views and that the “Commonwealth” party proposed a statehood plebiscite as late as 2010.
“Commonwealth” party leaders now fear that a plebiscite under the Federal law will result in another resounding statehood victory.