The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (1952) establishes a republican form of government with three separate powers: the executive, legislative and judicial branches, each of them subordinate to the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico. Article III of the Constitution establishes that the legislative power will be exercised through a Legislative Assembly consisting of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives, whose members are chosen in each general election by direct vote with universal suffrage.

Legislative autonomy

To ensure legislative autonomy and prevent the legislature from being subordinate to the executive branch, it is established that each body is the only entity able to judge the legal capacity of its members, the validity of its acts and the results of its elections. Additionally, the legislature itself selects its management and officials and writes its own procedural and internal governance rules. Each house elects a president from among its members and only the members can expel another member. A legislator cannot be arrested while performing his or her function (while the houses are in session), except for treason, felony or disturbing the peace, and legislators have parliamentary immunity for statements made in the course of their legislative work. The Legislative Assembly is a continuous body during the term of its mandate and meets in ordinary session each year beginning on the second Monday in January. All sessions, both regular and extraordinary, are always public.

Legislative process

Although each legislative body has the right to adopt its own rules and procedures, the Constitution requires that bills cannot be converted into law without being made public. It requires that they be printed, read and submitted to a committee and then returned with a written report. Each house is also obligated to keep books of actions in which the movements of each bill, and the votes in favor and against, are recorded. A record of the session’s legislative procedures is published and to avoid manipulation, by hiding one bill within another, the subject of a bill must be clearly stated in its title and a bill addressing more than one subject cannot be approved. Parts of a bill that are not expressed in the title will be void. The houses meet at the Puerto Rico Capitol and their sessions must be open to the public. Public access to the sessions cannot be restricted.

The executive veto

In terms of its relationship with the executive branch, the Constitution establishes that all bills approved by the Legislature (which requires only a simple majority of both houses) must be signed by the governor within ten working days in order to become law. If the governor objects to a particular bill, he or she exercises the veto power and the objections are recorded in the minutes. The bill still becomes law without the governor’s signature if it is approved by two thirds of the members of both houses.

Impeachment

The Constitution also establishes a process of impeachment through which the Legislative Assembly can remove an official from office, including its own members, the governor and the resident commissioner. The House of Representatives has the exclusive power to begin the impeachment process and can, with a vote by two thirds of its members, file charges. Once the process has begun, however, it is the Senate that has the exclusive power to pass judgment and impose a sentence. Three fourths of the members of the Senate must vote in favor of a finding. The sentence issued by the Senate is limited to removal from office. The person removed is also subject to being charged, tried and sentenced by the courts, which could include imprisonment and fines, as in any other criminal case. Reasons for impeachment include treason, bribery, other felonies and misdemeanors that imply depravity. If the impeachment is begun against the governor, it is presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Composition of the Senate

The Senate consists of twenty-seven (27) senators, except in cases of electoral landslides when the requirement of adding minority senators is applied. Each of the eight senatorial districts elects two senators. The districts established in the Constitution are San Juan, Bayamón, Arecibo, Mayagüez, Ponce, Guayama, Humacao and Carolina. An additional eleven (11) senators are elected at-large. The total is sixteen (16) senators by district and eleven (11) at-large.

Composition of the House of Representatives

The House consists of fifty-one (51) representatives, one for each of the forty (40) representative districts (except when minority members must be added) and eleven (11) at-large. The Constitution specifies the division of the districts but establishes that every ten years a board must be created, chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who is joined by two members appointed by the governor, for the purpose of revising the borders of each district, based on the results of the official census. The two additional members of the board cannot belong to the same political party and each ten-year revision must maintain the same number of senatorial and representative districts. Only the territorial borders can be changed.

Requirements for being a legislator

To hold a legislative office, the person must have lived in the district no less than one year before election or appointment. The person must be able to read and write one of the two official languages of Puerto Rico, Spanish and English, and must also be a citizen of Puerto Rico and the United States and have resided in Puerto Rico for at least two years prior to the date of election (or appointment). To be a senator, candidates must be at least thirty years of age and for the House of Representatives, twenty-five years of age. No senator or representative can be appointed to another office in the Puerto Rico government, the municipalities, or related entities during the term for which the legislator was elected or appointed.

Powers

In addition to passing laws and joint resolutions (which also require the governor’s signature), the Legislative Assembly authorizes the annual budget that the executive branch uses to administer the state. The task of studying and approving the budget begins in the House of Representatives, like all bills that involve state revenues, although the Senate can propose amendments and advice.

There are two additional powers that are significant in achieving the democratic principle of balance of powers. One is the power to advise and consent (which in Puerto Rico, as in the United States, is conferred specifically on the Senate), which consists of approving appointments by the governor. This power of confirmation (the executive nominates and the Senate confirms) covers all judicial appointments. Another legislative power that is essential in a republican system of government is the ability to create, consolidate or reorganize executive departments and define their roles. In other words, the executive cannot reform the governmental structure without legislation to that effect.

Legislative committees

To organize its work and to study, consider and propose bills (including holding public hearings), the legislative bodies establish permanent internal committees based on topics and chaired by representatives of the majority party, although all committees include representation from the minority parties. The organization of these committees and their internal procedures are the exclusive prerogatives of each body. Each legislative president appoints the chairs of the committees in the respective houses and supervises the committees’ work.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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