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Court will question its power to decide Puerto Rico case

The Supreme Court, scheduled to hear on Wednesday an important case on Puerto Rico’s constitutional status, told lawyers involved on Friday that they should come prepared to talk about the Justices’ power to decide the case.  The Court’s jurisdiction had been challenged in an amicus brief filed in the case of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle.

In taking the case to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Puerto Rican government relied on a federal law that gives the Justices the authority to review “final judgments or decrees” by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court, including in situations in which that court has ruled on a question under the U.S. Constitution.  The decision being challenged involves the Fifth Amendment’s ban on “double jeopardy” as it applies in Puerto Rico criminal courts.  Puerto Rico wants to be able to prosecute crimes in its courts even though the federal government has already prosecuted those same crimes; to do that, it must be treated as a separate “sovereign.”

The Court granted review of the case on October 1, and no question was raised at that time about its jurisdiction.  However, an amicus brief by the Virgin Islands Bar Association, which opposes Puerto Rico’s position on the merits, on December 22 raised that issue.  It argued that, because the ruling of the island’s supreme court was not a final one, the Court may not decide it.  The bar association contended that the two men who had been prosecuted had been charged with multiple counts, and the decision in their favor only struck down one of the counts, leaving the others still pending.

“The record thus reflects that the constitutional question in this case is limited to a single count in each of the multi-count indictments. . . .  Because the [Puerto Rico] Supreme Court’s decision affected some but not all of the counts against [the two men], it was not a final judgment.”  The Court should dismiss the case, the bar association contended.

Puerto Rico’s lawyers responded briefly to that point in a footnote in a reply brief, asserting that the challenge was “meritless.”  The double-jeopardy issue in the case, the footnote said, was a federal issue that was “finally decided by the highest court in Puerto Rico” and — quoting the Court’s 1975 ruling in Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn — “will survive and require decision regardless of the outcome of future state court proceedings.”  The language governing appeals in that case, from a state court, is the same regarding appeals from Puerto Rico’s highest court, the bar association said.

One or more of the Justices or their clerks apparently concluded that these exchanges did not settle the matter, so the Court’s clerk told the lawyers on both sides to be ready to be asked about it on Wednesday.  The hearing will go on as scheduled, at 11 a.m.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Court will question its power to decide Puerto Rico case, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 8, 2016, 5:20 PM),