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USVI Challenges U.S. Supreme Court Power to Decide Sánchez Valle Case

By on January 11, 2016

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to hear Wednesday the Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle case that could have an impact on Puerto Rico’s political status, advised the parties to be prepared to talk about the justices’ jurisdiction after the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) challenged it in a friend of the court brief.

The Supreme Court is slated to answer the question of whether Puerto Rico and the United States are separate sovereigns for purposes of the double jeopardy clause, which provides that a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offense. The case involves whether two individuals convicted for weapons violations by federal court can be prosecuted for the same crime by a local court.

To make that decision, the top court must decide what is “the ultimate source” of the commonwealth’s authority to prosecute. If the local and federal courts derive their prosecutorial power from the same ultimate source, they are not separate sovereigns and there is double jeopardy. It they are derived from different sources, then the local Justice Department can prosecute.

The local Justice Department says Puerto Rico obtained its own sovereignty after drafting a constitution in 1952,  but attorneys from the Legal Aide Society, which is representing the individuals, are defending a Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruling that says the island is still a territory that derives its power from the U.S. Congress.

However, the USVI Bar Association on Dec. 22 raised the issue as to whether the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to decide the case in a friend of the court motion. The association is arguing that the ruling of the Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court is not final because the two men who had been prosecuted had been charged on multiple counts, and the decision in their favor only struck down one of the counts, leaving the others pending.

“The record thus reflects that the constitutional question in this case is limited to a single count in each of the multi-count indictments…. Because the [Puerto Rico] Supreme Court’s decision affected some but not all of the counts against [the two men], it was not a final judgment,” the association says.

Puerto Rico’s lawyers responded to the issue contending that a 1975 ruling on a double jeopardy case says the matter will require a ruling regardless of the outcome of future court proceedings.

Besides the USVI, other organizations have filed friend of the court briefs, including the Puerto Rico Bar Association and the Florida Association of Criminal Lawyers.

The case has garnered a lot of attention in Puerto Rico after U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who is slated to participate in the oral arguments of the case, sided with the local Supreme Court in stating that the two convicted individuals cannot be prosecuted by the local courts for the same crime because Puerto Rico, like the federal government, derives its source of power from the U.S. Congress. The Constitution affords no independent political status to territories and instead confirms they are under the sovereignty of the United States and subject to the plenary authority of Congress.

“The events of 1950-1952 did not transform Puerto Rico into a sovereign. Before 1950, [the U.S.] Congress had progressively authorized self-government in Puerto Rico. As a further step, in 1950 Congress permitted the people of Puerto Rico to adopt a constitution, which Congress approved with revisions in 1952.  Those events were of profound significance for the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, but they did not alter Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a U.S. territory. The United States did not cede its sovereignty over Puerto Rico by admitting it as a State or granting it independence. Rather, Congress authorized Puerto Rico to exercise governance over local affairs. That arrangement can be revised by Congress, and federal and Puerto Rico officials understood that Puerto Rico’s adoption of a constitution did not change its constitutional status. The ultimate source of sovereign power in Puerto Rico thus remains the United States,” the solicitor general said.

By Eva Lloréns Vélez

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