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The Murder of the Commonwealth?


Attorney Ramón L. Rosario Cortés wrote in El Vocero, “In 2008, the local Justice Department accused Luis Sanchez del Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez for weapons offenses. Last Thursday, the Federal Supreme Court found that they can not be prosecuted for such offenses but we assume they can now be charged with the murder of ELA.” ELA here stands for “Estado Libre Asociado,” literally “Free Associated State”, the official name of the territory of Puerto Rico in Spanish. This is commonly translated as “The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” and has caused confusion for decades.

The term “commonwealth” is used in the official name of Puerto Rico just as it is used in the official name of Kentucky — as a term signifying a group of people. It has no special legal meaning. Kentucky does not have a different relationship from the United States than California has; both are states. Puerto Rico and Guam are both territories, and the use of “commonwealth” in the name of one doesn’t change that.

The author knows this. In the Supreme Court decision, he says, “it was decided that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty and that the source of their power comes from and depends on the Congress. Nothing new. Such reasoning has been evident since… 1901. Power over Puerto Rico is only the Congress and they have told us that for decades in reports from Congress and the White House. As recently as March 2011, President Obama reaffirmed this.”

While there was a dissenting opinion from two of the Supreme Court justices, who said there was reason to go back in history to make the decision, the majority opinion points out that Puerto Rico never had sovereignty of its own as Native American tribes or as states did. Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain and Spain gave their colony to the United States, which took it on as a territory. Thus, Puerto Rico never had separate sovereignty apart from the authority given by the U.S. Congress.

The author suggests that this could be a bar to statehood. How, he wonders, could Puerto Rico request statehood from the federal government if it has no sovereignty?

While this may be an interesting question and we look forward to your comments, it seems clear that territories of the United States always have the option of requesting statehood. 37 territories have become states. The process was not identical in each case, but perseverance led in each case to statehood.

This is why a territory doesn’t have a clear status; it can always become a state or an independent nation. Being a territory doesn’t settle the political status of the territory, so that status is likely to continue to be a contentious issue until a permanent status is chosen.


3 thoughts on “The Murder of the Commonwealth?”

  1. Actually, Puerto Rico after centuries as a colony, became a Province of Spain in 1897 with full representation in the Spanish cortez. Spain calls it’s Provinces “Autonomous Territories”
    So PR *DID* have a prior short lived sovereignty.

    California was so far & remote, Congress never got around to organizing it, much less incorporate it. Congress assigned the military to run the territory. The California Tennessee Plan gained it statehood.

  2. The contention that the lack of sovereignty would bar a territory from becoming a state is absurd. Arguably the states that were the former Southwest & Northwest territories (TN, and most of the modern Midwest) retained the sovereignty that the states’ they belonged to previously did, but that would not be the case for the former Louisiana territories. Louisiana for it was a territory of France and was sold to the United States. The same is true for Alaska. Under the equal footing doctrine, once Congress has admitted a new state under it’s proper authority, the state joins the union in equal footing as the other states. If nothing else, the equal footing doctrine would endow the new state with the requisite sovereignty, and relate it back to the time of its admission.

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