A Court Affair: Statehood Modifications in Puerto Rico

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The design of this paper is to detail the formation of a viable and effective legal justice system in the 51st state in the United States of America, the newly incorporated statehood of Puerto Rico. The newly incorporated state of Puerto Rico needs a comparatively effective judicial branch and court system to successfully execute and deliver justice in the United States federal and state justice system. In an attempt to design an effective and efficient court system for Puerto Rico, it is necessary to examine states in America with a similar geographical, demographical, and political background with Puerto Rico that can serve as a template for the creation of the court system. The principal intent is not to disintegrate the existing justice system, but rather to propose one that complements the state’s unique social, legal, and geographical disposition. Through an in-depth analysis of current judicial system establishments, and finding likely comparable and examples of such court systems throughout the United States, it is undoubtable that such an effective and viable court system will come to fruition in the state of Puerto Rico.

According to the state’s constitution, Puerto Rico’s judicial courts have a three-tiered system, with Court of First Instance, incorporating the Superior Division and the Municipal Division, in the bottom, Court of Appeals in the second tier, and the state’s Supreme Court at the top tier (Court Statistics Project, 2010). The judicial system is led by the Supreme Court, of which is formed by 7 justices that sit en banc, presiding over appeals by right criminal, civil, and administrative agencies in the state (Rivera, 2014). Puerto Rico has 78 municipalities, which are deemed as county equivalents for determining the jurisdiction of district courts. A total of 12 judicial districts serve the 78 municipalities in a judicial system that has at least one district judge, with other temporary authorized judgeships, district court clerk, “United States Attorney, United States Marshall, United States Magistrates, bankruptcy judges, probation officers, court reporters” and other staff members (Rivera, 2014). In the Superior Court division, 253 judges preside over case types ranging from torts and contracts to exclusive felonies and juvenile misdemeanors.

There are approximately 85 judges in the Municipal Division which preside over case types such as small claims and non-criminal ordinance violations (Court Statistics Project). While there have been discussions of reducing the 78 municipalities into groups to 20 counties through a referendum, it never came close to being passed through a majority vote since each is distinctively different from one another, so much so that they have city flags to differentiate each municipality’s governing principles (Rivera, 2014). Hence, to this day, Puerto Rico still maintains the 78 municipalities that it originally came to pass. Of these 78 municipalities, there are 40 representative districts. San Juan is the location for the functions of the federal government, which is represented by 2 district judges appointed by the President of the United States.

In reviewing the court system of Puerto Rico, it is necessary to look at similarly situated states, such as Arizona and Kentucky, for likely structuring/restructuring of existing court systems due to approximate population figures and geographical size of the states. While Kentucky appears to be similarly situated, population characteristics in Kentucky are not akin to Puerto Rico, since it is more homogenous than the 51st state. However, upon closer examination, Puerto Rico’s court system is much more diversified and is likely to triple in the number of the 116 judges that sit in the District Courts of Kentucky.

Yet, much like Arizona’s three-tiered justice court system, Puerto Rico’s is a maturing judicial three-level system that complies with the general structure of courts throughout the United States. In Arizona, each 15 county has one or more Superior court, Justice Court, and Municipal Court. Judicial selection methods vary depending upon the level of the court: supreme and appellate court officials are chosen by a nominating committee whereupon the Governor makes the final decision of appointment (Arizona Judicial Branch, 2014). Similarly, Connecticut and many other states also follow similar practices in the election of a judge. Even though Puerto Rico was governed and directed been under the jurisdiction of the United States as a territory without the voting powers or rights as a normal state, it has had much exposure to the legal system of the United States. This exposure, whether for better or worse, has preempted the courts of Puerto Rico to better transition into the existing judicial structures and systems of the United States.

Hence, Puerto Rico, upon seeing the structure for Arizona Courts, could adopt Arizona’s three-level court systems, with the District Court and the Municipal Court categorized under the Superior Court of Puerto Rico, where new judges can be appointed to hear a wider variety of cases throughout the state. The Courts of Appeals in Arizona currently has 22 judges, whereas Puerto Rico has 39 judges, and three sit en banc on appeals mostly pertinent to exclusively criminal cases (Courts Statistics Project, 2014). Unlike Arizona, Puerto Rico does not have a clear division of case distribution in the state.

While Arizona has two Court of Appeals divisions, the Tucson (II) and the Phoenix (I), to resolve differences in jurisdiction between the North and the South of the state, Puerto Rico does not have similar apparatus in place. This should indicate that Puerto Rico has a need to divide case distribution between the different regions of the state, such as the West and East, of the state of Puerto Rico in order to streamline the cases that are heard by the court. Here, Puerto Rico has an opportunity to better structure the effectiveness and efficiency of the court system through taking the example of Arizona’s court in mostly taking appeals from the superior court, and leaving other appeals, such as death penalty appeals and cases involving elected officials and other government entities, to go directly to the Supreme Court (Arizona Judicial Branch, 2014). This way, not only will Puerto Rico’s cases be streamlined more effectively, but the addition of the judges at the lower levels, the Superior Division, will provide a more diversified and even further faster process that can resolve cases in a more disciplined manner.

The next step is to determine the selection criteria and procedures of appointing Superior Court judges in the lower levels of the state of Puerto Rico. Throughout the state of Puerto Rico, a variety of selection methods are utilized to determine unique designations of judicial leadership. For example, each of the municipalities is governed by a popular elect mayor and municipal assembly, utilizing the partisan election method. Meanwhile, the governor of the state, then, appoints a judge to the position of Chief Justice or Associate Justices, which is the gubernatorial election method. Many states use a combination of methods to determine judicial leadership. Since Puerto Rico’s current geopolitical methods have now met the needs to parallel the jurisdictional structure of that of the state Supreme Court in the continental United States, it would be wise to follow similarly structured states in determining the way in which Puerto Rico conducts judgeship appointments.

After Puerto Rico has been recognized as a state by the declaration of statehood in the United States, it would be judicious for the governor to continue the selection of district judges, with the passage and confirmation from the Senate of Puerto Rico. It must be noted that similar states, such as Arizona – who has five justices, has a similarly structured judicial system that continues working for the state up to this day (Arizona Judicial Branch, 2014). Arizona’s Supreme Court justices are selected by the state’s governor and the chief of the Supreme Court justice is selected by fellow justices for a five-year term, where a regular term for all justices is six years. Since each state has unique preferences for the duration and length of time that the justices should be in the position, since Puerto Rico’s initial length of office appointment is 8 years, it should continue to be in such order to reduce confusion and promote cohesion with the local mannerisms. As such, it can be inferred that Puerto Rico can continue to elect the gubernatorial commission selection of judges after statehood, as well as maintaining lifetime tenures of these judges as the state see fit.

Meanwhile, the installation of the federal court in Puerto Rico can successfully transition into an extension of the Supreme Court Appellate District – First Circuit. Geographically speaking, Puerto Rico is most similar in size to Connecticut, which encompasses approximately 3,492 square miles (United States Council for Puerto Rico Statehood, 2004). However, population-wise, with 3.8 million citizens, Puerto Rico is considered a mid-sized population state that is similar to Kentucky and Arizona, but with a socially integrated society of Spanish and Caribbean customs, while simultaneously influenced by mainland United States interactions and influences (United States Council for Puerto Rico Statehood, 2004).

According to the Federal Judicial Center (n.d.) and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the First Circuit – also known as the First United States Court of Appeals has appellate jurisdiction over cases heard in one of its subsidiary districts, one such as Puerto Rico’s district courts. Cases submitted under the First Circuit can be either criminal or civil that falls under the legal jurisdiction of federal regulations. Since September 12, 1966, legislature passed for placing the District of Puerto Rico’s court in the same status as other U.S. district courts (Federal Judicial Center). Being one of five states that are under the First Circuit, Puerto Rico has the most authorized judgeships compared to any of the other four states, the other four states being Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island (Federal Judicial Center). This translates to more paperwork and possibly more flow of cases being tried and presided upon in the state of Puerto Rico.

However, contrary to common sense, Puerto Rico’s geographical location puts it in a disadvantageous position to being grouped with the First Circuit Courts. Geographically, the First Circuit’s physical office location is furthest away from Puerto Rico’s actual geographical setting. While Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island are neighboring states with each other, Puerto Rico is the only island outlier that is at least a four-hour plane ride away. There are only two sessions throughout the year where Supreme Court cases are heard in the Puerto Rico’s location by the First Circuit justices, for other times, these cases must be relocated to the actual location in Boston, Massachusetts in order for Puerto Rico’s cases to be heard. This poses as a disadvantage to the state of Puerto Rico, as it is apparent that one of the larger population groups within First Circuit’s districts does not have adequate access to the federal appellate courts as the other four states. Furthermore, such inconveniences in the location of the court will also discourage those seeking for justice a less

Meanwhile, the Eleventh Circuit, on the other hand, one that presides over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia is more geographically attractive to serving the region of Puerto Rico. However, upon closer examination, it is recognized that the Eleventh Circuit court is the busiest federal appellate court with twelve authorized judgeships in the United States (United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, 2014). Furthermore, the Eleventh Circuit court has limited available resources that can be appropriated towards incorporating Puerto Rico into its district. As such, it is suggested that Puerto Rico remains within the First Circuit, but with modifications.

One of the latter actions in order for Puerto Rico to successfully integrate into the United States’ court system would be to nominate a district court judge from within its jurisdiction into the First Circuit Court of Appeals of the United States. While there is an existing judge, Juan R. Torruella, that has had experience with the United States District Courts of Puerto Rico, where he served as Chief Judge from 1982 to 1984, he is only one amongst 9 chosen judges who preside the First Circuit who is familiar with the island.

Therefore, it would be in the best interest of the state for Puerto Rico to choose a judge from the district courts or the Supreme Court to serve on the First Circuit in the United States Court of Appeals that understands Puerto Rico’s interests and can understand the situation of Puerto Rico’s delicate position accordingly. After nominating it to the President of the United States, the President can then decide on whether to appoint the federal judge from Puerto Rico with the advice and consent of the Senate (United States Courts, 2014). The second would be to set up satellite and temporary locations for the hearing of the Supreme Court Appellate cases in Puerto Rico, to allow for more efficient and faster processing of cases that require the attention of the Supreme Court. By setting up make-shift clerk’s offices and First Circuit Court accesses available in Puerto Rico, more people can access the courts and cases can be resolved in a more expedient and judicious manner.

Since the overall structure of the court system has been devised with modifications, it is vital that access to such court systems is available to all citizens in the state of Puerto Rico. Communication is the critical component in the ability for citizens of the United States to maintaining the right in accessing justice. According to the U.S. Census (2010), Puerto Rico’s total population reached 3,725,789, with 3,688,455 Hispanic or Latino residents, which amounts to roughly 99 percent of the population. Hence, due to the fact that it has a predominantly Hispanic or Latino ethnic majority, the primary spoken language of the majority is Spanish. While English and Spanish are deemed as official languages in the state of Puerto Rico, Spanish remains to be the language of the majority. This means that the United States will have 4 million additional voters after suffrage right has been granted to Puerto Rican citizens of the United States of America. Even though Puerto Rico’s percentage of Hispanic or Latino population resembles that of Texas, the population of Texas is almost 6.5 times that of Puerto Rico with very complicated systems of courts. As a result, while Puerto Rico can take certain aspects of the Texan court system into consideration, such as the diverse branches of traditionally district court and municipal/tribunal court cohesion into consideration, it cannot mimic to the exact structure and ways in which the court systems are designed, simply due to the differences in demographic dissimilarities.

Returning to the subject of the language used in courts, it was found that nearly all government functions and court proceedings in the United States of America are carried out in English (Ryan, 2013, p. 1). In order for Puerto Rico’s court systems to successfully and smoothly transition into the justice system of the United States, it can be understood that Puerto Rico’s court systems should be designed to use standard English as the primary mode of communication. According to the Voting Rights Act, the federal government determines the localities in need of language-assistance services and delivers such necessary translation, education, or assistance services to those with lower English proficiency levels in the United States (Ryan, 2013, p.2). Having the ability to communicate the legal needs of the local community is one of the most important issues that Puerto Rico must address for its diverse and active population.

Understanding the background of Puerto Rico’s majority with Spanish speaking residents, it is expected of the courts of Puerto Rico to be able to provide Spanish and English to speakers for whom English is not a viable language option. Looking to court systems in California and Texas, we see that information is made available in languages such as Mandarin and Spanish throughout the state. Hence, Puerto Rico should also adopt this Laredo, Texas is a city that has an approximate 94% Hispanic or Latino population, one of the highest percentages of Hispanic/Latino population compared with in the nation (United States Census Bureau, 2010). The city made access to court systems simple through online websites and forms that are available in English and Spanish. Los Angeles, California, is another city that has a large population of Spanish speakers, and likewise, translation services were made available throughout the court systems in Los Angeles and most of the Southern regions of California. As such, it is best that Puerto Rico looks towards similar states, such as Laredo Texas and Los Angeles, California, with Spanish speaking populations in implementing likely programs for open access to limited and non-English speakers.

Now that a viable channel of legal access has been established for Puerto Ricans to access court systems in the state and the federal level, it must also participate actively in the political arena in order to protect continuing interests. In order to represent itself before the Congress and adequately advocate on behalf of the state itself, Puerto Rico must designate officials to represent the newly declared state before the United States. The state of Puerto Rico should be assigned six seats in the House of Representatives (due to its population of close to 4 million citizens) and two senator seats that serve for a likewise staggered six-year term in the Senate (Constitution of the United States, 1994). The House Representatives and Senators shall be chosen in accordance with Section three, Article one, of the Constitution of the United States of America. Furthermore, Puerto Rico is also entitled to appoint up to 8 Electors to represent the suffrage interests of its citizens before the United States Congress when appointing an eligible presidential candidate.

It must be noted that the changes proposed in restructuring Puerto Rico’s court system are a gradual process that must be delegated with consideration for its unique dispositions. Prior to the declaration of Puerto Rico’s statehood, the federal distribution of funds and power was a primary concern that hindered the designation of Puerto Rico as one of the states in America. It was estimated that the annual cost of statehood for Puerto Rico would be at a bare minimum of $4 to $7 billion dollars per year (Natural Resources Committee Republican, 2010). Since federal funding has been a major concern in the statehood declaration for Puerto Rico, it must be addressed in the funding for its court systems as well.

Indubitably, making some aforementioned modifications to the court system in Puerto Rico would cost money. However, it is critical that Puerto Rico completes such modifications in its court system in order to propel cohesion and smoother integration into the overall court systems in the United States. It is widely known that the court systems throughout the first 50 states of the United States are not exactly the same, as various different states have more diversity and need other such accommodations and collaborations with different mechanisms of the justice system. Therefore, it should be noted that since Puerto Rico is a distinctive and unique state, it will differ in the handling of cases, whether criminal or civil, throughout the state, and comparatively, as a result, differ with other states. However, through finding closely approximate state demographics and characteristics in the state, like one such as Arizona, Puerto Rico will be able to execute a court system that is both equitable and financially inexhaustible judicial branch for the state.

Therefore, should adequate financing be planned accordingly, a more efficient and effective judicial court system will only aid the state in becoming more financially independent and judiciously equitable. Furthermore, since the current court system has already developed into a more mature and stable structure, as with most other state courts, it would be aberrant for the system to divert more funds into the existing system from federal funding. As such, it would become apparent that changes and modifications cannot be brought about in a short duration of time, but in phases that are planned carefully for the ultimate performance in judicial court systems in the state of Puerto Rico.

References

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Constitution of the United States (1994). U.S. Senate: Reference Home > Constitution of the United States. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from http://www.senate.gov/civics/constitution_item/constitution.htm#a1_sec3

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