Justice Sonia Sotomayor placed Puerto Rico in the news when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Yet it is the first woman on the nation’s highest court who has authored a definitive opinion about Puerto Rico’s territorial status.
In 2009, the year that Justice Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was serving as a substitute judge on federal appellate courts across the country. One of the cases she decided was U.S. vs. Laboy-Torres, a case in the Federal Third Circuit.
A Pennsylvania man, Marco Laboy-Torres, was asked when buying a handgun whether he had been convicted of any crime “punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.” He said he had not — even though he had been convicted of drug charges in Puerto Rico and initially sentenced to three years in prison. He was prosecuted for making false statements while trying to buy weapons.
At issue was a specific point of law: Is Puerto Rico a foreign jurisdiction, or is a Puerto Rican conviction considered domestic?
Laboy-Torres’s lawyer claimed that a court in Puerto Rico would be a “foreign” court, and that Laboy-Torres’s conviction in Puerto Rico was not relevant to his answer to the question posed to him when he attempted to buy a gun.
The U.S. government argued that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who may “travel to, from and within the mainland United States,” and that “[a]ccordingly, the people of Puerto Rico do not exercise the full sovereignty as a foreign nation.”
Writing for the Third Circuit, retired Justice O’Connor agreed with the government’s position. In her opinion, she noted specifically that:
• Puerto Rico possesses “a measure of autonomy comparable to that possessed by the States.”
•“Congress maintains similar powers over Puerto Rico as it possesses over the federal states.”
•Like the States, Puerto Rico lacks “the full sovereignty of an independent nation,” such as the power to manage its “external relations with other nations.”
•“[A]lthough Puerto Rico is not a state in the federal Union, ‘it . . . seem[s] to have become a State within a common and accepted meaning of the word.’ ”
•”Puerto Rican sovereignty is of an extent and character similar to that of the States.”
•Congress frequently uses the term “State” to refer also to Puerto Rico, and that “courts routinely conclude that Congress intended to include Puerto Rico even when a statute is silent on that front.”
Justice O’Connor also discredited several specific contentions made by Laboy-Torre’s lawyer. With respect to the argument that “Puerto Rico has its own autonomous government, constituted and bound by a written constitution, and with three branches mirroring those of our national government,” she responded that “Appellant’s great reliance upon this point is perplexing, as the same can be said of every State in the Union (with variations in the structures of those governments).”
Finally, addressing the perennial issue of Puerto Rico’s Olympic team, Justice O’Connor wrote, “Without diminishing the pride Puerto Rico rightfully should enjoy in light of its place in the pantheon of international sporting events, we reject as meritless the proposition that classifications made in the context of the organization of such events find application to the construction of federal law.”
The third Circuit’s opinion makes it clear that the characterization of Puerto Rico as a “nation” is inaccurate. Rather, Puerto Rico is currently considered very much like a state under U.S. law — but without the full rights and responsibilities enjoyed by states.