Next week’s hearing on Puerto Rico’s status will be different from other hearings on the Island’s political status. Instead of focusing on the traditional trio of political viewpoints in Puerto Rico — representing statehood, some version of “commonwealth,” and independence — the hearing will focus instead on two bills now in Congress: HR 1522 and HR 2070.
While HR 1522 calls for a straightforward ratification vote either for or against statehood for Puerto Rico, HR 2070 has many unusual elements that have not yet been explored. One example is the section that invites a Congressional commission to advise delegates to a convention on Puerto Rico’s status on the language, culture, taxes, educational system, and judicial system of Puerto Rico.
Recommendations on culture and language
Specifically, the commission is expected to develop recommendations regarding self-determination options on constitutional issues and policies related to:
- judicial and public education systems
- taxes; and
- United States citizenship
The U.S. Constitution contains no directives on language or culture; it has literally nothing to say on these subjects.
We can imagine the response if the State of Texas or the State of Maine were expected to accept constitutional or policy advice on language and culture from a commission of legislators from other States. Puerto Rico could have the same reaction.
Certainly “constitutional issues and policies” on these issues are nonexistent.
Judicial and public education systems
The Constitution’s relevance to education is generally agreed to be found in the 14th amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. This part of the U.S. Constitution has been applied to education in the courts.
There is no specific mention of education in the Constitution.
There is specific guidance on judicial systems in Article III of the Constitution:
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
The Commission is designed to include one member from the Department of Justice.
The Constitution does mention taxes.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution says this:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
This is known as the “Tax and Spending Clause.” The 16th amendment also gives Congress the right to collect income tax.
Individual States have the power to impose income taxes, sales and use taxes, and property taxes. The States are not limited to these types of taxes, but they are the most common state-level taxes.
The Constitution mentions both State and national citizenship, saying for example that only a natural-born citizen of the United States may be president and that the judicial system can decide disputes between citizens of different states.
The 14th amendment is the home of the Citizenship Clause. Section I says this:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Although U.S. citizenship is secure for residents in states, there has been debate and discussion regarding the issue of whether and for how long U.S. citizenship will still be available to Puerto Rico’s residents if the territory becomes independent. One point of concern is that U.S. citizenship in Puerto Rico was granted by federal law rather than the U.S. Constitution, which makes it easier to end.
There is no example of an independent country – including the Freely Associated States – granting U.S. citizenship to its residents.
The Commission is empowered only to “provide advice and consultation” to the delegates to the status convention. There is no requirement for delegates to follow the advice of the commission, or even to meet with the commission. The commission must meet with the delegates if requested to do so and if one representative for each status option is present. However, the delegates have no requirements relating to the Commission, so it remains to be seen how impactful the Commission would be.