On Thursday the Twitter profile of the SCOTUS blog tweeted out a decision in the Supreme Court case of Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle et al, which explored whether “whether the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the federal government are separate sovereigns for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution.”
SCOTUS holds 6-2 that Puerto Rico and US cannot bring successive prosecutions for same conduct under equivalent criminal laws
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) June 9, 2016
The 6-2 decision concluded that Puerto Rico could not prosecute an individual for a crime that the United States has already prosecuted. The reason behind the decision? Puerto Rico’s current territorial status, a commonwealth, did not make it a separate sovereignty from the U.S. For this specific case, the government of Puerto Rico had argued that double jeopardy (which “prohibits anyone from being prosecuted twice for substantially the same crime”) did not apply to them. The Court disagreed.
Today’s decision is a blow to Puerto Rico’s soverienty bc it treats PR as having the same sovereignty as the United States.
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) June 9, 2016
Outside of the criminal law implications, the Court’s opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, revealed how the Court views Puerto Rico’s political relationship and status with the United States, one that continues to be debated. Here are some excerpts from the opinion:
And yet the result we reach, given the legal test we apply, ends up the same. Puerto Rico today has a distinctive, indeed exceptional, status as a self-governing Commonwealth. But our approach is historical. And if we go back as far as our doctrine demands—to the “ultimate source” of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power, Wheeler, 435 U. S., at 320—we once again discover the U. S. Congress.
And since the events of the early 1950’s, an integral aspect of that association has been the Commonwealth’s wide-ranging self-rule, exercised under its own Constitution. As a result of that charter, Puerto Rico today can avail itself of a wide variety of futures. But for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause, the future is not what matters—and there is no getting away from the past. Because the ultimate source of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power is the Federal Government—because when we trace that authority all the way back, we arrive at the doorstep of the U. S. Capitol—the Commonwealth and the United States are not separate sovereigns. That means the two governments cannot “twice put” respondents Sánchez Valle and Gómez Vázquez “in jeopardy” for the “same offence.”
The Court’s accompanying Syllabus that was released with Kagan’s majority opinion, but “constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court,” added more details that speak to how the Court views Puerto Rico’s political status (key points italicized in bold by Latino USA):
Conversely, a municipality cannot count as a sovereign distinct from a State, because it receives its power, in the first instance, from the State. See, e.g., Waller v. Florida, 397 U. S. 387, 395. And most pertinent here, this Court concluded in the early 20th century that U. S. territories—including an earlier incarnation of Puerto Rico itself—are not sovereigns distinct from the United States. Grafton v. United States, 206 U. S. 333. The Court reasoned that “the territorial and federal laws [were] creations emanating from the same sovereignty,” Puerto Rico v. Shell Co. (P. R.), Ltd., 302 U. S. 253, 264, and so federal and territorial prosecutors do not derive their powers from independent sources of authority. Pp. 5–11.
(b) The Grafton and Shell Co. decisions, in and of themselves, do not control here. In the mid-20th century, Puerto Rico became a new kind of political entity, still closely associated with the United States but governed in accordance with, and exercising self-rule through, a popularly-ratified constitution. The magnitude of that change requires consideration of the dual-sovereignty question anew. Yet the result reached, given the historical test applied, ends up the same. Going back as far as the doctrine demands—to the “ultimate source” of Puerto Rico’s prosecutorial power—reveals, once again, the U. S. Congress. Wheeler, 435 U. S., at 320. Pp. 12–18.
As LawNewz wrote about the decision on Thursday:
So even though Puerto Rico has sovereignty in terms of having self-rule, that sovereignty comes from the federal government so it isn’t separate. Kind of like a municipality not being separate from a state, because they get their power from the state. Therefore, double jeopardy still applies.
The decision is sure to add fuel to the fire in the debate over whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, as statehood would give them ‘separate sovereign’ status.
Here are the full Court documents pertaining to the Thursday decision: