Puerto Rico, Constitutional Status of
PUERTO RICO, CONSTITUTIONAL STATUS OF
No clear definition exists of how and to what extent the Commonwealth of puerto rico fits within the federal constitutional system. Undoubtedly, the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, enacted by Congress in 1950 "in the nature of a compact" between Congress and the people of Puerto Rico, and the adoption by Puerto Ricans of their own constitution in 1952 were intended to work a significant change in the previous colonial relationship between the island and the United States. The nature and scope of this change, however, have not been conclusively ascertained by federal courts ruling on the matter.
Puerto Rico, which had become a self-governing overseas province of the Kingdom of Spain under the Royal Decree of 1897, was ceded to the United States in 1898 under the Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish American War. It became an unincorporated territory of the United States, subject to the plenary command of Congress. Under various Supreme Court decisions it is clear that, until 1952, Puerto Rico was a domestic possession of the United States, neither a foreign country nor an integral part of the nation, merely belonging to it. Congressional authority over the island and its people encompassed the entire domain of sovereignty, both national and local, and was completely unconstrained by the federal Constitution, except as regards those basic prohibitions which go "to the very root of the power of Congress to act at all" and "which the Constitution has established in favor of human liberty and are applicable to every condition or status." (See insularcases.) Wielding its plenary powers, the United States established a military government in Puerto Rico from 1898 to 1900, when a civil regime was installed under the Foraker Act, providing a meager participation of Puerto Ricans in the island's government. In 1917 Congress enacted a second Organic Act (Jones Act) providing a measure of self-government and granting United States citizenship collectively to the people of Puerto Rico, while retaining all major elements of sovereignty.
In 1950 a bill to provide for the organization of a constitutional government by the people of Puerto Rico was introduced in Congress. Its provisions were not to be effective until accepted in a referendum by Puerto Rican voters. After a favorable vote on the new federal act by the island electorate, a constitutional convention was held in Puerto Rico and the fundamental law drafted there was adopted by the majority of the islanders in 1952. In transmitting the newly adopted Puerto Rican Constitution to Congress, President harry s. truman recognized that with such approval "full authority and responsibility for local self-government [would] be vested in the people of Puerto Rico." In 1953 the United Nations recognized that Puerto Ricans, exercising the right of self-determination, had achieved a new constitutional status, and had "been invested with attributes of political sovereignty which clearly identify the status of self-government attained by the Puerto Rican people as that of an autonomous political entity."
It is generally accepted by federal courts that after 1952 "Puerto Rico's status changed from that of a mere territory to the unique status of commonwealth." The Supreme Court itself stated in Examining Board v. Flores (1976) that "the purpose of Congress in its 1950 and 1952 legislation was to accord to Puerto Rico the degree of autonomy and independence normally associated with a State of the Union." However, the precise extent of the referred "autonomy" and the constitutional basis for statelike status are very much in doubt. Thus, while the Supreme Court has now accepted that "Puerto Rico is to be deemed sovereign over matters not ruled by the federal Constitution" and that Puerto Rican legislation and court decisions deserve the same regard in federal courts as those of a state, it has also ruled in Harris v. Rosario (1980) that Congress under the territorial clause may still "treat Puerto Rico differently from States so long as there is a rational basis for its actions." Likewise, the Court, after acknowledging that Puerto Rico is subject to federal constitutional requirements regarding freedom of speech, due process, equal protection, and reasonable search and seizure, has indicated that such guarantees are binding either directly under the Bill of Rights or indirectly by operation of the fourteenth amendment, expressly refusing to fix one or the other as the source or basis of their applicability. The Court has yet to write on a clean slate in dealing with the new constitutional status of Puerto Rico.
Jaime B. Fuster
Fuster, Jaime B. 1974 Origin of the Doctrine of Territorial Incorporation and Its Implications for the Power of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. University of Puerto Rico Law Review 43:259–294.