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Appeals Court Denies Puerto Ricans The Presidential Vote

October 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

BOSTON (AP) - Puerto Rico must become a state, or the U.S. Constitution must be amended, if the island's citizens are to be allowed to vote in the U.S. presidential elections, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled.

But Gov. Pedro Rossello said he plans to hold an election anyway.

"There will be a (presidential) vote on Nov. 7, and we will continue to appeal so those votes are counted in Congress," Rossello told reporters Friday night.

State Elections Commission (SEC) President Juan R. Melecio said the appeals court did not rule on the validity of the local law, so until it orders something else, "at this moment the local law is valid," according to published reports.

A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday overturned a lower court ruling in which local federal judge Jaime Pieras said Puerto Rico's 2.4 million voters are entitled to vote in the election.

Chief Judge Juan R. Torruella agreed with the ruling but issued a separate, concurring opinion that sharply criticized the U.S. government's "national disenfranchisement" of Puerto Rican citizens.

"The perpetuation of this colonial condition runs against the very principles upon which this nation was founded," Torruella wrote.

The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on Torruella's opinion, but spokesman Charles Miller said, "based on the Constitution, we believe the court's decision today was the correct one."

Rossello, whose government has joined the case as a plaintiff, said he was considering whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, as did another plaintiff, attorney Gregorio Igartua.

But Popular Democratic Party President Sila Calderon said the government had "the moral obligation" to cancel the election in Puerto Rico.

In its ruling, the court cited Article II of the Constitution, which says explicitly that electors must be chosen by the states. The only way around the language would be to make Puerto Rico a state, or to amend the Constitution - as was done with the 23rd Amendment giving residents in the District of Columbia the right to vote for president in 1961.

The case was brought by two groups: one of lifelong Puerto Ricans claiming an inherent right to vote, and another of former residents of the states who moved to Puerto Rico and lost their right to vote.

The same court ruled against Igartua, one of the 11 plaintiffs in this case, in a similar lawsuit in 1994. The court said Friday that nothing had changed since 1994, and the ruling must stand.

Congress made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens in 1917, but the island's people can elect only one nonvoting delegate to Congress. Puerto Ricans can vote in the presidential primaries, but not in the general election.

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