The United States Supreme Court has rendered a decision on Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle, the case that asked whether a conviction in a Puerto Rico court is separate from a conviction in a United States court. The concept of Double Jeopardy says that people cannot be tried twice for the same crime. The defendants in the case were charged with crimes in Puerto Rico, and then were charged with the same crimes in federal court. They pled guilty to the federal charges and moved to dismiss the charges in Puerto Rico on the grounds that it was the same crime and the same jurisdiction. Puerto Rico disagreed, and brought the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that Puerto Rico has sovereignty of its own, apart from Congress.
Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party (PDP) has claimed that Puerto Rico has sovereignty since the enactment of Public Law 600, the act which allowed Puerto Rico to write and adopt a constitution, subject to approval by Congress. The federal government has repeatedly made clear that this law, and the resulting constitution, make no difference to the relationship of the United States and Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, under the power of Congress as stated in the Territorial Clause.
The U.S. Constitution sets forth in Article 4, Section 3:
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
In a six to two decision, the Supreme Court decided that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty separate from the United States, and thus they cannot bring separate prosecutions for the same crime.
The majority decision says that the questions “hinges on a single criterion: the ‘ultimate source’ of the power undergirding the respective prosecutions. If two entities derive their power to punish from independent sources, then they may bring successive prosecutions. Conversely, if those entities draw their power from the same ultimate source, then they may not.
The decision goes on to say that “the States are separate sovereigns from the Federal Government (and from one another).” Puerto Rico, as a territory, is not. Congress is the ultimate source of power for Puerto Rico. Congress allowed Puerto Rico to write a constitution, required Puerto Rico to make changes in that constitution, and then approved it.
Court also clarified that Puerto Rico is not on “equal footing” with the States, and does not share in their “power, dignity and authority.”
The States, along with Native American Tribes, had sovereignty of their own before they became part of the United States, the court argued, but Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain, which then transferred possession to the United States, and Puerto Rico did not have sovereignty at any point. “The island’s Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain.”
Justices Breyer and Sotomayor disagreed, pointing out that “We do not trace Puerto Rico’s source of power back to Spain or to Rome or to Justinian, nor do we trace the Federal Government’s source of power back to the English Parliament or to William the Conqueror or to King Arthur.”
However, the majority decision stands and adds another example to the large collection of statements from the various branches of the federal government saying that Puerto Rico is subject to Congress as a territory, just as it has been for more than a century.
Lyle Denniston, writing at the SCOTUS Blog, says that this decision has implications for Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, as well. “[T]he ruling ultimately turned on the basic fact that Puerto Rico has been a territory — with less constitutional rank than a state — since 1898,” he wrote. “As such, it continues to be entirely subordinate to Congress under the Constitution’s Territories Clause… The mere fact that the issue [of Puerto Rico’s debt] is now being weighed on Capitol Hill shows that Congress clearly understands that what Puerto Rico can do depends almost completely upon what the lawmakers are willing to allow.”