Valle Case: Tempest in a Teapot

In the pending Supreme Court case of Puerto Rico v. Valle, the first sentence in the brief filed by the Governor’s lawyers grandiosely proclaims, “This is the most important case on the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States since the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1952.”

That is utter nonsense.

The decision of the U.S. Congress in 1950 to provide by federal territorial law for adoption of a local territorial constitution does not create a “constitutional relationship” between the federal and territorial governments.

To the contrary, the 1950 federal territorial organic statute for Puerto Rico, given the title “Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act” by Congress, creates a statutory relationship between the local structure of civil administration created under federal law and federal authorities.

The fact that Puerto Rico’s local system of civil administration operates under a local territorial constitution authorized, amended and approved by Congress is not unique at all, but rather is typical in the history of dozens of U.S. territories governed under U.S. sovereignty but not within a state.

Establishment by federal law of a local structure for civil administration of a territory through local self-government under a territorial constitution does not mean that Puerto Rico or any other territory similarly organized has a political status defined by the U.S. Constitution.

Thus, the Valle case is simply one more in long history of identical and similar federal legal cases in which local territorial regimes attempt to use legal questions within the purview of the federal courts to seek court rulings that in effect define territorial political status.

But for all U.S. territories political status is a political question that first and foremost falls within the Territorial Clause authority of Congress. Federal courts confirm territorial status as defined by Congress, and in doing so often may comment on political issues relevant to the case.

Such commentaries on political questions abound in federal court rulings confirming Puerto Rico’s status as a territory. But consistent with constitutional limits of federal court jurisdiction the actual rulings of the court must be limited to the legal rather than political issues raised in a case. In addition, ultimately political status should be determined by self-determination of territorial peoples, not by judicial edict.

In that context, the Valle case is best understood as simply one more among many cases asking the courts to confirm the effect of federal statutory laws that may or may not treat Puerto Rico like a state of the union for one specific statutory purpose or another. Since it is within the sovereign discretion of Congress to treat territories like states, possessions or even foreign nations under federal territorial statutes, the courts often have to confirm the extent to which territories can and should be treated like a state under federal law, or denied state-like treatment, based on applicable statutory law.

That is simply and precisely what the Valle case is all about, nothing more and nothing less. In this case the question is whether, under the 1950 organic act and the local constitution approved by Congress in 1952, the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico should be treated like a state for the purpose of allowing separate federal and local territorial prosecutions in criminal cases.

The court may rule that Congress has endowed the territory of Puerto Rico with sufficient local authority that it should be treated as “like a state” in this case, in which event federal prosecution does not prevent a local prosecution. Or, the court may decide that Congress has not conferred sufficient local powers to create a “functional” separation between local authority and federal authority to prosecute crimes.

The federal courts and territorial courts have come down on one side or the other on the same issue, and dozens of similar issues, and will continue to do so. When rulings by territorial courts and lower federal courts have been appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court itself has come down for “state-like” treatment in some cases, and denial of “state like” treatment in other cases.

But the courts normally do not use the power of judicial review to answer political questions, even when the courts feel compelled to express political opinion or provide political context for the legal ruling in a particular case.

That is what should be expected in this case. Further analysis of the Valle case and its true implications will follow as the appeal moves forward.

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