Puerto Rico v. Branstad 1987

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Puerto Rico v. Branstad 1987

Petitioner: Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Respondent: Terry Branstad, Governor of Iowa, et al.

Petitioner's Claim: That Iowa violated the Extradition Clause of the U.S. Constitution by refusing to extradite Ronald Calder, who was wanted for murder in Puerto Rico.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Lino J. Saldana

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Brent R. Appel

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall (writing for the Court), Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: June 23, 1987

Decision: The Supreme Court said federal courts could require Iowa to extradite Ronald Calder to Puerto Rico.

Significance: With Branstad, the Supreme Court said federal courts have the power to order state governments to obey the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.

The Extradition Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires states to extradite fugitives who are hiding in their states. A fugitive is someone who escapes from law enforcement and fails to appear to be tried for a crime. When a state extradites a fugitive, it arrests him and delivers him to the state where he is wanted for a crime. In 1793, Congress passed the Extradition Act, which requires states and territories of the United States to obey the Extradition Clause.

In Kentucky v. Dennison (1861), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a strange ruling about the Extradition Clause. It said states must obey the clause, but the federal government may not enforce the clause or punish states for disobedience. The Supreme Court said state and federal governments are equal sovereign powers, so one cannot order the other to do anything. In Puerto Rico v. Branstad (1987), the Supreme Court had to decide whether Dennison was still good law.

The Fugitive

Ronald Calder was an air traffic controller from Iowa who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in San Juan, Puerto Rico. On 25 January 1981, Calder got into an argument with Antonio de Jesus Gonzalez in the parking lot of a grocery store. An angry Calder got into his car and drove it into Gonzalez and Gonzalez's pregnant wife, Army Villalba. After striking the couple, Calder backed his car up over Villalba's body two or three times. Gonzalez survived, but Villalba and her unborn child died.

Puerto Rican authorities arrested Calder, charged him with first-degree murder and attempted murder, and released him on $5,000 bail. Calder did not think a white American could get a fair trial in Puerto Rico, so he fled to his family's home in Iowa. Puerto Rico notified Iowa that Calder was wanted in Puerto Rico to stand trial for murder.

On April 24, 1981, Calder surrendered to authorities in Iowa. On May 15, the governor of Puerto Rico asked Governor Robert Ray of Iowa to extradite Calder to Puerto Rico. Governor Ray held an extradition hearing, at which Calder argued that he could not get a fair trial in Puerto Rico. Governor Ray then tried to get Puerto Rico to reduce the charges against Calder. When Puerto Rico refused, Governor Ray denied the extradition request. Terry Branstad, who became governor in Iowa after Ray, also denied Puerto Rico's extradition request.

In 1984, Puerto Rico sued Iowa in federal court. Puerto Rico wanted to force Governor Branstad to extradite Calder to Puerto Rico. Relying on Kentucky v. Dennison, both the trial court and the court of appeals said they were powerless to order Iowa to obey the Extradition Clause. Puerto Rico took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice

With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Puerto Rico. Writing for the Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall said it was time to overrule Dennison. When the Supreme Court overrules a prior case, it announces a new rule of law that replaces the rule from the old case.

Justice Marshall said the Supreme Court decided Dennison shortly before the American Civil War began, when the federal government was its least powerful point in American history. With the United States falling apart, there was no way the Supreme Court could have ruled that the federal government could order states to obey the Constitution.

In cases decided after the Civil War, the Supreme Court found the courage to make such rulings. As an example, Justice Marshall referred to the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education (1955). In Brown, the Supreme Court ordered the states to end segregation—the practice of separating white and black students in different public schools. The Court said segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. According to Brown and many other cases,


I n 1861, the United States was on the verge of the American Civil War. Southern states wanted to maintain power by keeping slavery, which made southern agriculture highly profitable. Northern states wanted to abolish slavery. By 1861, many southern states had ceded from, or left, the union of the United States to form a separate Confederacy. In the midst of this turmoil, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide a case concerning a slave who escaped from captivity.

Charlotte was a slave girl who lived in Louisville, Kentucky. One day she was allowed to go with her owner, C.W. Nichols, to visit her mother in Wheeling, Virginia, where Nichols had business. On their way to Wheeling, Charlotte and Nichols passed through Ohio, which had abolished slavery. While in Cincinnati, Charlotte met some people who helped her escape from Nichols and she became a free woman in Ohio.

Kentucky believed that Willis Lago, a free African American in Ohio, helped Charlotte escape from Nichols. Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin asked Ohio Governor William Dennison to arrest Lago and send him to Kentucky to face charges of assisting the escape of a slave. When Dennison refused, Kentucky sued him in federal court.

With tension over the slavery issue high, the question of whether federal courts could order states to comply with the Constitution was difficult. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the Court said Ohio was required to send Willis Lago to Kentucky to face criminal charges. The Court also said, however, that the federal government had no power to force Ohio to send Lago to Kentucky. Lago escaped charges, the United States fought a civil war, and it took another 125 years for the Supreme Court to overturn Dennison in Puerto Rico v. Branstad.

when a state violates the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can force it to obey. Marshall said the idea that state and federal governments are equal sovereign powers is no longer true.

Iowa, then, had a duty to obey the Extradition Clause and the Extradition Act of 1793 by sending Calder to Puerto Rico. If Iowa denied Puerto Rico's request, the federal courts could issue an order giving Iowa no other choice. By reversing Dennison, the Supreme Court made sure no state could become a safe haven for fugitives from the law.

Suggestions for further reading

Johnson, Joan. Justice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Karson, Jill, ed. Criminal Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda. Great American Court Cases. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.

Owens, Lois Smith, and Vivian Vedell Gordon. Think about Prisons and the Criminal Justice System. Walker & Co., 1992.

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Puerto Rico v. Branstad 1987