Puerto Rico Court System

Background information

Puerto Rico’s judicial system currently comprises of the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the region and also mandated to direct the entire judicial system. Other courts include judicial districts courts, which are meant to deal with the most basic cases. Higher than the judicial district courts are municipal courts, then district courts which are mandated to handle both civil and criminal cases, the superior courts and the court of appeals. The district courts in Puerto Rico can be equated to state courts in the United State. The courts have at least one judge and a clerk (city-data, 2010).

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If Puerto Rico was to gain state status, my proposed judicial structure would borrow mainly from the US judicial system since, not only because Puerto Rico has been under the United States, but the people therein have US citizenship. This then means that the US judicial system would be easily acceptable within the new state.

Under the 1789 judiciary act, the US congress implemented a constitutional provision that states that “ The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish” (Wheeler & Harrison, 1994 p. 7). Based on the interpretation of this provision, it is evident that as a state, Puerto Rico would have to join in the basic design followed by other states. Such would mean that a supreme court or appellate court would be put in place in order to interpret the laws contained in the federal constitution, while lower federal courts would be put in place in order to deliberate legal matters within the Puerto Rican geographical boundaries.

Notably, the constitution of the United States recognizes that each state should have considerable sovereignty and as such should not only have a court system, but should also have a legislature and an elected governor (Mecham, 2001). The powers available to states are limited by the constitution. This then means that states courts can only operate within the jurisdiction specified in the constitution.

With Puerto Rico becoming a state within the larger United States of America, it would be expected that the federal judiciary would have the same constitutional rules apply to the courts as well. For starters, the Federal judges appointed to serve in the Puerto Rican judiciary would be subject to article III of the US constitution, which allows them to serve in the judiciary for life. Through impeachment, Congress can remove the article III judges from office, if they are found guilty of treason or bribery among other serious misdemeanors (Mecham, 2001).

The federal judges in Puerto Rico would also be subject to compensation provision under article III of the constitution, which states that their compensation “shall not be diminished during their continuance in office” (p. 11). This means that the legislative and executive branches of government do not have any powers to reduce the compensation awarded to federal judges. Just like other parts of the United States, the two provisions in article III of the US constitution would guarantee federal judges in Puerto Rico the independence they need in order to decide cases without pressure from the political class.

Trial courts

The district courts are the main courts in Puerto Rico charged with the responsibility of handling criminal cases as well as civil cases. The district courts are presided over by a district judge. Support staff in such courts includes probation officers, bankruptcy judges and state magistrates. US Marshals, attorneys, clerks as well as court reporters are also part of the large group working in district courts. In the context of a new state, this study proposes that Puerto Rico should retain the district courts as the main trial courts especially because they have served the region well so far. In addition, the courts are comparable to the same type of courts elsewhere in the US (Magaly, 2010).

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The cases handled in district courts include traffic violations, misdemeanors on federal property, habeas corpus procedures, disputes occurring between states, bankruptcy cases, disputes that occur between citizens, legal cases that involve foreign nationals, treaties or states, property rights such as patent and copyright laws and admiralty cases (Clark & Rogers, 1952).The district courts also have the responsibility of handling interstate commerce cases, and international trade. More so, they also handle cases on commodity regulations and securities. Cases that address federal laws and regulations also occur in the district courts. Such include civil rights, broadcasting cases, social security and even tax issues. The federal courts also handle crimes that fall under statutes adopted by the congress (City-data, 2010).

Overall, proposed state courts in Puerto Rico should handle family law cases, real property cases, state constitution cases or other cases that involve the rules and regulations in the state. Disputes between landlords and tenants also need to be addressed in the state courts, as does disputes that occur between signatories of a private contract. Traffic violations, injury claims at work, inheritance and probate matters as well as personal injury lawsuits should also be handled by the state courts. In addition, internal business wrangles that happen in corporations or organizations should be settled in the same courts.

States highest courts

According to the National centre for State Courts (2007), the highest courts in Puerto Rico are the Supreme Court, followed by the Court of appeals. Both are classified as appellate level courts. The Supreme Court sits seven justices and is also referred as the court of last resort. The case types filed in the Supreme Court include original proceedings that apply for appeals for writ through the bar or the judiciary, interlocutory appeals in administrative agencies, civil or criminal cases can also be filed in the Supreme Court. Appeals can also be placed by administrative agency or right civil (NCSC, 2007). Decisions regarding the US constitution are however referred to the Supreme Court in the US.

It is proposed that the court of appeals in Puerto Rico sits 39 judges who sit in 3-person panels. The court acts as the Intermediate appellate court and handles appeal cases that have been filed by administrative agencies or individuals in civil or criminal cases. The Court of first instance is the most basic court in Puerto Rico, with 338 judges. The court is divided into the superior division which has 253 judges and the municipal division, which has 85 judges. The superior division conducts jury trials in cases that require the same, while the municipal division has no jury trials.

Under the municipal division, the courts handle cases under real estate properties, contract law and tort. These cases must however involve disputes that do not exceed $ 3,000. In miscellaneous civil cases, the municipal division cases can handle claims with $ 5,000. The municipal division is also allowed to handle traffic infraction cases and ordinance violations (NCSC, 2007).

The superior division courts handle juvenile cases, preliminary hearings in misdemeanor cases and exclusive felony cases and domestic relation cases. The courts also handle real property cases, administrative-agency appeals, tort cases, probate or estate cases and contract cases. Before 2002, Puerto Rico has a district division court in the courts of First Instance. However, this was abolished and all its functions reassigned to the superior division court.

Choosing judges for each court

Article III judges

On gaining state hood status, Puerto Rico would have little choice over the selection of judges. Rather, the new state would have to follow the precedent set by the US constitution in regard to the appointment of judges. This means that as predetermined in article III of the constitution, judges serving in the Supreme Court, district courts and the court of appeals would have to be directly appointed by the sitting president of the United States.

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As is customary in such appointments, the senate would have to vote for the presidential nominees in order to confirm them to the jobs. As stipulated in the US constitution, judges appointed under article III will retain the jobs for life unless they are impeached for gross misconduct. This is different from the current system in Puerto Rico, where the judges work until they are 70 years old, when they must take on a mandatory retirement (Clark & Rogers, 1952).

Just like happens in the mainland US, people seeking federal judge positions would have to complete lengthy forms which are meant to provides details about a person’s career, achievements as well as life in general. Some of the other things reflected in the forms that a person is required to fill include intellectual pursuits, job experiences, handled cases and outcomes of the same and public writings among other things (Mecham, 2001).

The judgeship candidates also have to go through thorough background investigations, extensive interview and further questioning in order to verify their suitability for the positions of a federal judge. When such procedures are complete, the president’s party forwards a list of viable names to the president, who then makes the appointments (Mecham, 2001).

This means that the appointment of judges is not without its political intrigues, since the senators or office holders from the ruling party must consider the political alignment of the candidates. While making the appointments, the president usually considers law professors, state court judges, lower federal judges and practicing judges for the post. However, the appointee must reside in the same district that a circuit or district court sits, and must also attend a judicial hearing committee organized by the senate. Only after being voted for by the senate do the article III judges ready to take office.

Once appointed, the federal judges have to sit in specific circuit or district courts and cannot attend to cases in other courts without formal designation. The work load in most circuit and districts courts usually means that the judges have their diaries full by the time they assume office.

Magistrate judges & Bankruptcy judges

The magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges sit in the district courts. In the mainland US, the magistrate judges are chosen by the district courts while the bankruptcy judges are chosen by the court of appeals. This means that the two types of judges are without the political processes discussed about the selection of Article III judges. On becoming a state, Puerto Rico would have to opt for a similar form of appointments.

When the judges in the appellate courts appoint the bankruptcy judges, they grant them 14 year tenure, while those appointed by the district court for the magistrate judge’s position are given eight year tenure. On completion of their respective tenures, both the magistrate and bankruptcy judges can be re-appointed for the same positions. However, before doing this, the appointing authorities must seek public opinion on the performance of the judges through publishing a public notice. A merit panel is also convened for purposes of counterchecking the incumbent’s position in order to decide whether his or her work qualifies him or her for a re-appointment.

State judges

By gaining a statehood status, Puerto Rico would also have to adopt state courts, which would in turn require the appointment of state judges. In the mainland USA, state judges work in the court systems based in states. Their working capacity is however similar to the federal judges’ capacity, which means that they too can invalidate laws that are inconsistent with the US constitution. According to Mecham (2001), state judges can either be appointed into office by the state governor, or elected into office through a majority public vote in general elections. Whichever way, they can still be reappointed into the state judge position through popular votes cast during an election.

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Structure of judicial and attorney ethical standards

In the United States, which this essay proposes that the new state of Puerto Rico would borrow largely from, judicial ethics dictate that “…judges may not hear cases in which they have either personal knowledge of the disputed facts, a personal bias concerning a party in the case, an earlier involvement in the case as a lawyer, or a financial interest in any party or subject matter of the case” (Mecham, 2001 p. 21). This is meant to ensure that the judge is as objective as is humanely possible when deliberating a case and ensures that justice is done to the people involved in the case.

Currently, judicial ethics in the United States are directed by five canons which are also proposed for the state of Puerto Rico. Canon 1 requires judges to uphold the honor and autonomy of the judiciary by being impartial in their jobs. According to Law encyclopedia (1998), this canon requires the judges to participate in the establishment, maintenance and enforcement of judicial conduct. More to this, the same judges are expected to observe the standards that they put in place.

Canon 2 requires judges to avoid impropriety, while his/her appearance or activities should be reflective of his/her decorum. According to Law encyclopedia (1998), this canon is intended to prohibit conduct by the judges, which would weaken or appear to weaken judicial neutrality. By obliging to this canon, judges are able to work without favoritism and the general public is able to trust the judicial system more. This canon extends to the relations or associations that judges keep. As such, a judge cannot join an organization that has discriminatory tendencies because this would be seen to affect his /her impartiality in the court.

The third canon requires the judge to perform his or her duties diligently and without bias. Under this canon, the judge’s official conduct is addressed comprehensively. The canon acts as a guide to how the judge performs his/her duties, as well as the administrative and disciplinary responsibilities. It also guides the judge’s public comments. The canon further contains rules intended to guide judges against engaging in prejudicial and biased behavior. Rules about disqualification are also stipulated in this canon (Code of Judicial Conduct, 1994).

The fourth canon requires judge to carefully choose their conduct in extra judicial activities in order to reduce the probability that such activities would conflict with the impartial requirements of their job. The canon addresses the issues in the judge’s life, which include remarks or jokes he or she makes. For example, the canon prohibit judges against making demeaning people based on the socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age, disability, race, religion or nationality.

Further, the canon specifies that judges who want to appear before a public hearing cannot do so without alerting and receiving advice from officials within the executive or the legislature (Code of Judicial Conduct, 1994). However, the canon allow judges to appear in public hearings, where the discussions are related to the administration of justice, the legal system or his/her own interest that are independent of his position as a judge.

The fourth canon also prohibits judges from taking up appointments in government commissions, committees especially if the work involved does not address matters of justice, the law or legal systems. Judges are however allowed to participate in committees or commissions where cultural, educational or historical activities are involved. Under the fourth canon, the judge cannot practice law nor can he or she take part in business dealing that would be seen as exploitative of his/her position as a judge. To cover financial accountability of the judge, the canon further has directives on how judges should handle gifts awarded to them, and how they should report their financial accounts annually in order to avoid corruptive practices (Law encyclopedia, 1998).

Canon 5 requires both a judicial candidate and a sitting judge to refrain from engaging in improper political activities. As such, a judge cannot take part in active politics. This means he or she can neither hold a political office nor endorse political candidates (Code of Judicial Conduct, 1994). Judicial candidates conversely are forbidden from making pledges about their judicial performance except only when such pledges relates to the unbiased and truthful presentation of legal duties.

To enforce the canons contained in the judicial code of ethics, the new state of Puerto Rico would have to adopt the code first. The judges in the state would then be required to adhere to the same or face the penalties stipulated therein (Code of Judicial conduct, 1994)..

Conclusion

The commonwealth state of Puerto Rico has three options; to become a state of the US, to retain its commonwealth status or to become a republic. This proposal is based on the first option that would see Puerto Rico gain a state status. Like many States in the US, this proposal is suggested on the assumption that as a state, Puerto Rico would have to adhere to most of what states in the mainland US does. This includes adopting their judicial system and integrating them into their society. If this is to happen, Puerto Rico would not have as many changes to enforce since they have had a taste of the US judicial system in the past.

Proposed judicial structure for the ‘new’ state of Puerto Rico
Figure 1: proposed judicial structure for the ‘new’ state of Puerto Rico

References

City-data (2010). Puerto Rico- Judicial System. Web.

Clark, C.E. & Rogers, W. D. (1952). The new Judiciary act of Puerto Rico: a Definitive Court Reorganization. The Yale Law Journal 61(7) 1147.

Code of Judicial Conduct. (1994). Canon. Web.

Law Encyclopedia. (1998). West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Web.

Magaly, R. (2010). Puerto Rico government. Web.

Mecham, L. R. (2001). The Federal Court System in the United States: an introduction for judges and judicial administrators in other countries. 1-16. Web.

National Center for State Courts (2007). Puerto Rico: Court structure as of fiscal year 2007. Web.

Wheeler, R.R. & Harrisson, C. (1994). Creating the Federal Judicial System. Washington DC: Federal judicial Center.

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