Saturday, August 13, 2011

Puerto Rico edges closer to U.S. voting rights

Source: (AHN) Reporter: Tom Ramstack
Location: Washington, D.C., United States Published: August 12, 2011 03:40 pm EDT
Puerto Ricans’ chances of winning a right to vote in U.S. elections are as close now as at any time in American history. A First Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week has set up the conditions needed for the Supreme Court to review the possibility of voting rights for Puerto Rico’s four million residents.
The appeals court deadlocked 3-to-3 on whether to hear a case in which a lower court already denied Puerto Ricans a right to vote. A tied vote means any previous rulings are left to stand. The issue has arisen previously in the federal courts but never when there was a Supreme Court justice of Puerto Rican ancestry and presidential candidates were working so hard to win Hispanic votes.

Puerto Ricans hold American citizenship and can vote in presidential primaries, but not in general elections.  he Boston-based First Circuit ruled in a lawsuit by Puerto Rican attorney Gregorio Igartua, who seeks to win a right for Puerto Ricans to elect voting members of Congress and to vote for president. 

There is a Puerto Rican delegate to Congress now but he cannot vote on legislation.
The court already ruled against Puerto Rican voting rights six years ago by relying on a provision of the Constitution that says the right to vote is “limited to the citizens of the states.” Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, not a state.

Puerto Ricans would be allowed to vote in U.S. elections only if Congress passes a constitutional amendment or if the territory became a state, the First Circuit’s previous ruling said. Igartua relied on international law to argue that Puerto Ricans were being deprived of their right to participate in a democracy.

He drew support from the International Covenant on Civil Rights and Political Rights, which the United States ratified in 1992. The treaty says citizens of a country have rights to democracy that include voting in elections. The Supreme Court was presented with a Puerto Rican voting rights issue in 2000 but denied the case a hearing without a written opinion.

However, the 2000 case arose before Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the court in August 2009. Both of her parents came from Puerto Rico. Sotomayor grew up among Puerto Ricans who settled in New York’s South Bronx and identified themselves as “Nuyoricans.” In college, she was co-chair of the Accion Puertorriqueña organization, a social and political club for Puerto Rican students.

As a lawyer, she served on the board of directors for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, who in June made the first official visit to Puerto Rico by a sitting since President Kennedy in 1961. “The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America,” Obama said in a speech shortly after stepping off his airplane at the Puerto Rican capital San Juan.He also pledged to support “a clear decision” by the people of Puerto Rico on statehood.
About half of Puerto Ricans support statehood. Most of the others prefer commonwealth status to protect their cultural identity. Only a few prefer independence.
In March, the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status recommended a vote on Puerto Rican statehood by the end of 2012.

The beginnings of a new policy toward Puerto Rico also can be seen in recent federal court decisions. In previous years, the courts held steadfastly to depriving Puerto Rico of voting rights in U.S. elections. In the First Circuit’s ruling, one of the dissenting judges was Judge Kermit Lipez, who said he has changed his mind since the court’s ruling against Puerto Rican voting rights in 2005.Lipez says he now believes the Constitution “may permit their enfranchisement” under some interpretations of law.