Trías Monge, José

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Trías Monge, José

(b. 5 May 1920 in San Juan, Puerto Rico; d. 24 June 2003 in Boston, Massachusetts), constitutional jurist and chief justice of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court who assisted in crafting the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952).

Trías Monge was the son of José Trías Duffrent, a retailer, and Belén (Monge Whuestis) Trías, a teacher. Trías Monge was born on Cruz Street in the old section of San Juan. His father, one of sixteen children, completed the eighth grade before leaving school and joining the workforce to help support his family. Trías Duffrent worked as a retailer specializing in footwear, selling his merchandise primarily in the San Juan area. Trías Monge’s mother was born in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. She worked for the Department of Public Instruction and taught third grade at the José Julían Acosta Elementary School in San Juan for thirty-three years.

As a child Trías Monge had an appreciation for literature and the Castilian Spanish language, passions that continued throughout his life. He attended Central High School and concluded his high school education with his selection as valedictorian. Trías Monge enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico at the age of sixteen. Attending the university’s School of Arts and Sciences, he received a BA in literature with a concentration in social science in 1940.

Trías Monge subsequently traveled to the United States and enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied language, literature, and law. During his studies he worked as a translator and during his last year and a half at Harvard worked as a teaching fellow. Even though he had little free time, Trías Monge would find diversion by playing cards, playing chess, swimming, and dancing as well as pursuing his interest in literature by forming a student club interested in Spanish literature. He received an MA from Harvard in 1943 and, continuing his studies in law, received an LLB from Harvard in 1944. During his time at Harvard he met Jane Grimes, a fellow student, who would become his first wife on 3 June 1943 (some sources say 1945). The couple would have three children. Trías Monge then attended Yale University and earned a JSD in 1947 with a concentration in antitrust theory, administrative law, and judicial administration. Attending both Harvard and Yale allowed Trías Monge to analyze and debate the intellectual struggle between Harvard’s sociological school of legal thought and Yale’s realist school of legal thought. One of Trías Monge’s most notable professors and influences was the future U.S. Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, whom Trías Monge once assisted in arguing before the High Court.

Once his education had ended, Trías Monge returned to Puerto Rico and joined the faculty of his alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico. There he became a professor of law and also taught in the Department of Hispanic Studies. During this time Trías Monge also maintained a private law practice with his partners Lino Saldana and Luis F. Sánchez Vilella.

In Washington, D.C., Trías Monge, who was writing his thesis focusing on judicial and legislative reform in Puerto Rico, met and interviewed Luis Muñoz Marín, who was then the president of the Puerto Rican Senate. A close friendship ensued that would last thirty-four years, with Trías Monge serving as Muñoz Marín’s close adviser and attorney. This relationship would help lead Trías Monge down the path of public service in Puerto Rico. Trías Monge entered public service in 1949, when Muñoz Marín, who had become governor of Puerto Rico, appointed him assistant attorney general. He was then promoted to attorney general in 1953, serving until he resigned in 1957 to resume his private practice. In 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower, president of the United States, called Trías Monge to service as a representative of the Committee of the Caribbean. In 1955 he was appointed to the first Committee on Civil Rights, a responsibility that lasted until 1959. Trías Monge also supported and advised Muñoz Marín’s Popular Democratic Party throughout his career, even risking excommunication when the Catholic archdiocese waged a campaign to defeat Muñoz Marín’s candidacy for governor in 1960.

During his period of public service Trías Monge assisted in shaping the future of Puerto Rico, serving as a delegate to the constitutional convention in 1951. Since its annexation by the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico had been an unincorporated territory, despite its residents’ acquiring U.S. citizenship in 1917 and the ability to elect its own governor through popular vote in 1948. During the constitutional convention, Trías Monge participated in producing a constitution that placed Puerto Rico in a commonwealth status. The result was a model that, while setting Puerto Rico down the path of urbanization and limited self-rule, denied Puerto Rican voting representation in the U.S. Congress and prevented the island’s inhabitants from participating in national elections.

Trías Monge, known as “Don Pepe” among friends and family, was offered a judgeship on the Puerto Rican Supreme Court during the 1950s, but he declined the job in order to keep his private practice. However, on 19 April 1974 Trías Monge accepted the appointment of the newly elected governor Rafael Hernández Colón to the position of chief justice of the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. After eleven years as chief justice, Trías Monge felt he had dedicated enough time to the job and decided to concentrate his efforts on publishing written works. Trías Monge resigned as chief justice in 1985.

Throughout his career Trías Monge wrote extensively on constitutional matters. His most influential books, however, were published after he became chief justice. His works include the Judicial System of Puerto Rico (1978), The Crisis of Law (1979), the four-volume set Constitutional History of Puerto Rico (1980), and Society, Law and Justice (1986). In 1998, three years after retiring as chief justice, Trías Monge wrote his most controversial book, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World, the only book he wrote in English. In this publication Trías Monge reverses the direction of his lifelong advocacy of commonwealth status by arguing that Puerto Rico was engaged in nothing more than a thinly veiled colonial relationship with the United States.

In 1999 Trías Monge’s first wife died, and a year later he published a book of poetry entitled Testimonio (2000) in honor of her memory. He later married his second wife, Viola Orsini. Trías Monge died not long after in a Boston hospital following a long illness.

Biographical information about Trías Monge is in issues of Revista Juridica Universidad de Puerto Rico (1978 and 2004). An interview with Trías Monge is in Diálogo (Jan. 2001). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 June 2003).

Steven Wise

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Trías Monge, José

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