Puerto Rico: A Sovereign State or Still a U.S. Colony?

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Puerto Rico received a rather unwelcome and tightly wrapped Christmas gift this year from the United States as it was reminded, in a brief filed by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., that it is not a sovereign state regardless of the fact that it has its own Constitution and is much more independent than a colony or territory.

The United States, taking a substantial interest in the outcome of the two cases reaching the Supreme Court in January 2016 regarding Puerto Rico’s political status and future, just planted its feet firmly in the argument that Puerto Rico does not self-govern and is actually a territory with a limited ability and authority to govern over its own interests, disputes, and affairs. The brief has created a media frenzy in Puerto Rico and has even involved the United Nations through an appeal highlighting human rights issues pertaining to self-determination.

Image Courtesy Of [Vxla via Flickr]

Image Courtesy Of [Vxla via Flickr]

Historically speaking, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898 following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War pursuant to the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10, 1898. Following several years of constructing Puerto Rico’s government, legislature, and judiciary, it was finally provided a bill of rights by Congress in 1917, and the people of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship. In 1950, Congress gave Puerto Rico the right to create its own Constitution to be adopted by its government so long as it “provided a republican form of government” and “include[d] a bill of rights.” Puerto Rico’s Constitution was approved by Congress in 1952 following several changes and revisions. Since then, Puerto Rico has enjoyed a level of autonomy and sovereignty similar to that of the states. Constitutionally speaking however, Congress has directly managed and overseen Puerto Rico’s affairs under the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution.

The cases to be heard by the Supreme Court, while narrow in focus, will directly address the debate over Puerto Rico’s constitutional and political future–a bigger picture effect, if you will. One case addresses whether the United States and Puerto Rico are separate sovereign nations for the purposes of Double Jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Due to the fact that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits individuals from being tried for the same offense twice, Puerto Rico would have to have sovereignty and operate in an autonomous fashion to charge individuals for the same crimes they were convicted of in federal court. While the federal U.S. government and the states are considered separate sovereigns for the purposes of Double Jeopardy, in its brief, the U.S., who is not a party to the case, submitted support for the Respondents in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Luis M. Sanchez Valle, concluding that Puerto Rico is not a separate sovereign entity and therefore, Puerto Rico’s individual and independent prosecution of the individuals convicted in federal court violates the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The second case to be heard by the Supreme Court centers around Puerto Rico’s catastrophic public debt of approximately $72 billion, which it wants to be able to control and restructure in the same way each individual state can, but is not able to under the Bankruptcy Code of U.S. law. The debt incorporates $20 billion for public utilities, used by the people of Puerto Rico including 3.5 million Americans, which Puerto Rico is unable to pay. It is urging the Supreme Court to grant Puerto Rico the right to enact laws allowing for restructuring. This desperate measure comes on the heels of a 2014 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that struck down Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act, which allowed for Puerto Rico to fill the gaps of Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code that had excluded any part of Puerto Rico’s government to take part in restructuring. As such, the Recovery Act was found to be in direct opposition to U.S. law and deemed unconstitutional. The financial crisis in Puerto Rico has brought the small island to the brink of an economic meltdown.

Puerto Rico’s Governor, Alejandro García Padilla, issued an impassioned and assertive statement following Verrilli’s brief filing, stating that the Solicitor General’s stance is “contrary to all Supreme Court jurisprudence” and that Verrilli’s position is “at odds with prior postures by his office with regards to the sovereignty of the Commonwealth.” As far as Padilla is concerned, using the term “colony” to describe Puerto Rico’s current political status, well, those were fighting words.

While the upcoming Supreme Court cases both carry the answer to a long-lasting debate about Puerto Rico’s constitutional and political future, it appears that both sides want their cake and to eat it too. Padilla does not support either statehood or independence for Puerto Rico and wants U.S. financial and legal support on his own terms. The U.S. has received many benefits from its relationship with Puerto Rico, yet it fails to address the major pitfalls threatening the territory and is unwilling to be flexible in order to address dire concerns that only it can to date. Nothing is for certain except this–come early 2016, the Supreme Court will tackle the issue as to whether Puerto Rico is separate and sovereign from the United States. Until then, all we can do is wait and hope that Puerto Rico works with the United States to come up with additional solutions to the major problems at hand.

Ajla Glavasevic
Ajla Glavasevic is a first-generation Bosnian full of spunk, sass, and humor. She graduated from SUNY Buffalo with a Bachelor of Science in Finance and received her J.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Ajla is currently a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania and when she isn’t lawyering and writing, the former Team USA Women’s Bobsled athlete (2014-2015 National Team) likes to stay active and travel. Contact Ajla at



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