The Supreme Court held oral arguments yesterday on Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle.
Although the case could represent a significant development in the debate concerning Puerto Rico’s political status, from most indications it appears that the Justices are considering the case within the narrow confines of the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause, which prohibits a second jurisdiction from prosecuting a defendant twice for the same crime.
The issue in Sanchez Valle is whether Puerto Rico should be considered a seperately under the Double Jeopardy Clause because, as the Commonwealth government argues, the people of Puerto Rico enacted their own constitution in 1952, or, rather, Puerto Rican and federal courts represent the same source of authority under the terms of the U.S. Territorial Clause and, likewise, Congress ultimately had to approve the Puerto Rican Constitution for it to have the force of law.
The transcript has been made public and is available here.
Many of the Justices asked questions reflecting the sentiment that a ruling in favor of the Puerto Rico Government need not—and should not—be resolved on the ground that Puerto Rico is a “sovereign” with powers like those of a nation. Whether the Court will ultimately rule in favor of the Puerto Rico Government on narrower grounds, however, remains unclear after the oral argument.
The case has drawn a lot of attention in Puerto Rico. An amici brief was filed by a long list of current and former elected and senior appointed officials in Puerto Rico, arguing that “however this Court ultimately resolves the narrow question presented . . . whether the territory of Puerto Rico can be treated as a ‘sovereign’ separate from the federal government for double jeopardy purposes does not bear on the broader question of the territory’s political status or relationship to the United States in other respects.” The brief further noted that a broad ruling could “have far-reaching and unintended consequences for the long-running political debate over Puerto Rico’s status, as well as for other settled legal questions.” Signatories on this brief included Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, former Governors Luis Fortuño and Carlos A. Romero-Barceló, former Puerto Rico Senate Presidents Kennth McClintock, Thomas Rivera Schatz, and Charles Rodríguez, former House Speakers and current members Jenniffer González and José F. Aponte-Hernández, former House Speaker and Puerto Rico appellate judge Zaida Hernández-Torres, and former Attorneys General Guillermo A. Somoza-Colombani, Antonio M. Sagardía-De Jesús and José A. Fuentes Agostini.
The biggest news coming out of the Sanchez Valle case, however, has been the arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in its amici brief. In what could be the strongest executive branch statement on Puerto Rico’s status since the Clinton administration’s 2001 memorandum signed by Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben, the Justice Deparment explained that “United States territories are not sovereigns. The Constitution affords no independent political status to territories but instead confirms that they are under the sovereignty of the United States and subject to the plenary authority of Congress. It has long been settled that “there is no sovereignty in a Territory of the United States but that of the United States itself.” The Court therefore has recognized that territories are not separate sovereigns under the Double Jeopardy Clause. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and it therefore is not a sovereign for double jeopardy purposes.” (citations omitted)
The U.S. Justice Department further argued that “The events of 1950-1952 did not transform Puerto Rico into a sovereign. Before 1950, Congress had progressively authorized self-government in Puerto Rico. As a further step, in 1950 Congress permitted the people of Puerto Rico to adopt a constitution, which Congress approved with revisions in 1952. Those events were of profound significance for the relationship between the United States and PuertoRico, but they did not alter Puerto Rico’s constitution-al status as a U.S. territory. The United States did not cede its sovereignty over Puerto Rico by admitting it as a State or granting it independence. Rather, Congress authorized Puerto Rico to exercise govern-ance over local affairs. That arrangement can be revised by Congress, and federal and Puerto Rico officials understood that Puerto Rico’s adoption of a constitution did not change its constitutional status. The ultimate source of sovereign power in Puerto Rico thus remains the United States.”
Finally, the Bar Association of the U.S. Virgin Islands filed an amicus brief bringing up a perspective from one of the other U.S. territories: “[T]his Court’s decision in the present matter will have
critical import not only to Puerto Rico but also to the other United States territories–including, at the very least, the Virgin Islands. If this Court decides that Puerto Rico is a separate sovereign for the purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause, that decision arguably could be extended to the Virgin Islands and its citizens. The VIBA’s concerns with the extension of this decision to the Virgin Islands mirror its issue with the position that the Petitioner has taken in this appeal: it saddles the territories with the burdens that go along with being a state but awards them none of the benefits. This is where Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands share additional similarities, though somewhat less glamorous. Neither territory has representation in the United States Senate and each has only one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Neither territory is entitled to electoral votes for President.”