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Orlando Sentinel

Judge Rules, Puerto Rico Can Vote For President

by Ivan Roman

July 22, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A U.S. district judge has ruled that Puerto Ricans, for the first time ever, have the right to vote in this year's presidential elections.

The ruling was the second this week to put Puerto Rico's status as a U.S. commonwealth at the center of judicial debate.

U.S. District Judge Jaime Pieras Jr. challenged the current electoral system by ruling in favor of 11 Puerto Ricans who demand to vote in November. Island residents, who serve in the military and receive billions of dollars in federal aid, were made U.S. citizens in 1917 but cannot vote in presidential elections.

A citizen's right to vote, Pieras wrote, emanates from that citizenship as a "fundamental right" in a democratic society, expressed implicitly throughout the U.S. Constitution.

Pieras' ruling discarded the federal government's arguments that states, not individuals, vote for president and vice president through the electoral college system. Since Puerto Rico is a territory under congressional authority, the government argued, its residents can't vote.

Residents of Washington, D.C., gained the vote in 1961 through a constitutional amendment.

Chris Watney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, would say Friday only that government lawyers are studying the judge's ruling.

The plaintiffs, who filed a similar case before and lost in 1994, hope they won't have to keep fighting.

"It would be contradictory and immoral for the U.S., which projects itself as the champion of democracy for the world, to continue in this negative and discriminatory push to deny us the vote," said Gregorio Igartua de la Rosa, the principal plaintiff in the case.

Puerto Ricans who want the island to become a state were happy with the ruling's "sense of justice," but acknowledged that it would be an uphill battle.

Those supporting the island's current commonwealth status split on whether they liked the ruling's conclusions, but all chided the judge for his blistering criticism of the commonwealth as an obstacle to getting the vote and full citizens' rights.

Politicians who want Puerto Rico to become an independent nation said Pieras' words lay bare the "colonial" nature of the commonwealth and dismissed all the buzz about it as wishful thinking.

"You'd have to have a gigantic imagination to think that Judge Pieras can undermine the U.S. Constitution's territorial clause with the stroke of a pen," said Puerto Rican Rep. Victor Garcia San Inocencio of the island's Independence Party.

But aside from whether Igartua will get to vote, many say the ruling, coupled with a colleague's order Monday blocking the federal death penalty from being carried out in Puerto Rico, increases the pressure in Washington to address the island's status .

President Clinton started talks with the island's political leaders last month to find a way to break the logjam in Washington and San Juan over status .

In the earlier decision, U.S. District Judge Salvador Casellas said the federal death penalty was "locally inapplicable" because Puerto Ricans had no voice or vote in drafting the federal laws that re-established and expanded it.

Puerto Rico's Constitution, approved by Congress in 1952, expressly prohibits capital punishment, so imposing the death penalty on the island violates the laws that set up the current political relationship. Both judicial orders use the commonwealth status to support their decisions, but in very different ways. Pieras, a statehooder, blames the commonwealth's "incompatibility with the U.S. Constitution" for Puerto Ricans' lack of equal rights.

"Despite paying for their citizenship with blood, U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico have not entered the Presidential ballot box," Pieras wrote. "It is inconceivable to our constitutional order to expect that the government can place our nation's sons and daughters in harm's way and not recognize the power of those individuals to have a say in electing those who will make that decision."

Casellas used the dramatic example about military service to drive his point home also. But he blamed Congress and Washington for not respecting the agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States and gradually eroding the autonomy pledged when it began almost 50 years ago.

"Both decisions need to go to the Supreme Court so that body, and not politicians here with pockets lined with money, can spell out once and for all the constitutional validity of the commonwealth," said Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party's candidate for mayor of San Juan.

But one of his party colleagues, Sen. Eudaldo Baez Galib, said the decision on the presidential vote is on shaky judicial ground.

After much analysis, a blue-ribbon status commission in the 1970s concluded that a constitutional amendment or becoming a state were the only two ways for Puerto Ricans to have the presidential vote.

Baez Galib said some in the United States have often seen this issue in purely political terms. Republicans have often feared making Puerto Rico a state because it is largely Democratic and would have more representatives in Congress than 26 other states.

"This just revives this political point, but this time through the courts," Baez Galib said.

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