What’s a Commonwealth?

One of the confusing things about Puerto Rico is the word “Commonwealth.” Like Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts, Puerto Rico has the word “Commonwealth” in its name.

Just as with Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts, the word has no special legal meaning at all.

The difference is that people in Kentucky don’t think they have some kind of special relationship with the U.S. They realize that they’re a state. They have some powers apart from the federal government. They have some rights as inhabitants of their state. They have some responsibilities as citizens. Their legal relationship with the U.S. is the same as that of the people of Delaware, Idaho, or Oregon.

Some residents of Puerto Rico have the idea that they live in a Commonwealth, which is somehow different from a Territory. They imagine that they are not subject to the same laws as Guam — or as Kentucky, for that matter.

The U.S. Constitution is clear on this point:

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….

Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2

Does this apply to Puerto Rico, which is a territory of the United States? Yes it does.

In 2007, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico said this:

The commonwealth system does not, however, describe a legal status different from Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a “territory” subject to congress’s plenary authority under the Territory Clause “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory… belonging to the United States.”

In 2011, the President’s Task Force said this:

Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

There is really no question about this. The word “Commonwealth” doesn’t refer to a special status any more than being someone’s Facebook friend gives you special rights relating to them.

When Puerto Rico becomes a state, it can keep the word “Commonwealth” in its name just as the states listed above do.

This post was originally written in English and may be being auto-translated by Google.

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