U.S. Supreme Court to Puerto Rico: Commonwealth Powers Exist at Pleasure of Congress

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Sanchez Valle case confirms PR51ST’s analysis and predictions about the outcome. This ruling reveals clearly the only hoax played on the people of Puerto Rico was fabricated by those who falsely claimed that commonwealth ended or limited the territorial powers of Congress in Puerto Rico. The court expressly stated that autonomy given by Congress can be taken away by Congress, so commonwealth itself is a statutory policy not a constitutionally vested or unalterable transfer of powers.  Thus, the commonwealth model of territorial government does not create a zone of local sovereignty or governmental authority beyond the reach of Congress.

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that will not be remembered widely for its ruling on a narrow issue of criminal law. Rather, the federal high court’s ruling will be remembered as an historic affirmation that “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the United States are not separate sovereigns,” for purposes that include, but legally and politically are not limited to, the criminal jurisdiction issues in the case.

The political implications of the ruling are underscored by the fact that the appeal in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle was brought by the Governor of Puerto Rico in the thinly veiled and politically desperate hope that the Supreme court would reverse prior federal court rulings that Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory. The Governor’s local political party platform claiming “commonwealth” is a constitutionally defined sovereign status has been rejected by Congress and the White House for decades. Thus, the Governor sought a ruling recognizing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as a separate sovereign with constitutional rather than statutory autonomy beyond the reach of Congress.

Instead, the court ruled that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory with local government authority defined by a territorial constitution, noting in its ruling that “…when we trace that authority all the way back, we arrive at the doorstep of the U. S. Capitol.” Thus, the court expressly recognized that as a territory with a local constitution “Puerto Rico today can avail itself of a wide variety of futures,” but in doing so the court also recognized that “…there is no getting away from the past,” referring to the island’s territorial history.

The clear meaning of the court’s ruling is that Puerto Rico faces the same political status choices as all federal territories have faced throughout our nation’s history, to either remain a federal territory with limited self-government, or seek a constitutionally defined sovereign status through statehood, or nationhood with separate sovereignty, citizenship and a supreme constitution based on independence or free association.

In its ruling the court compared federal territorial status and the so-called “compact” creating commonwealth to a charter creating municipalities, counties and other domestic political subdivisions. As such the people in such subdivisions of national or state government are enabled to exercise powers of government under federal and state law, but only permissive rather than in the name and right of the body politic in such political subdivisions.

Accordingly, the court’s ruling in the Sanchez Valle case confirms that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory subject to the sovereignty of Congress and federal territorial law, with self-government under a locally ratified constitution in purely local matters not otherwise governed by federal statutes applicable in the territory. As the court noted in considerable historical detail, the commonwealth system of autonomous territorial government in Puerto Rico was organized and instituted for Puerto Rico in 1952, as it had been in 1934 for the Commonwealth of the Philippines as a U.S. territory prior to its independence in 1946, and as it later would be instituted in 1976 for territorial self-government in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

These federally sponsored measures promoting self-government while territorial status continues under local constitutions have been recognized by the United Nations as consistent with self-determination. Historically, federal territorial practices regarding local territorial government in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the two other “commonwealth” territories also are fully consistent with the development of local constitutions in the 32 territories that became states, the four states formed from within existing states, and the one sovereign republic admitted as a state. The court’s ruling today upholds that American tradition of provisional democratic territorial self-government, until a sovereign and fully democratic status is achieved through self-determination leading to statehood or independence, on terms approved by Congress.

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