The judicial branch in Puerto Rico — which along with the executive and legislative branches is in charge of governing the country — is led by the Supreme Court, which is the court of last resort and has the final word on the interpretation of the Constitution and the laws of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The Supreme Court, as it exists today, was established in 1952, but its origins date back to the 19th century. In 1831, by decree of King Fernando VII, the Royal Territorial High Court was established in Puerto Rico, the first court of appeals in the colony. Until then, appeals were presented before the High Court in Santo Domingo and, when that island fell under French control in 1795, in the court in Puerto Príncipe, Cuba. The Territorial High Court officially began its judicial work on July 23, 1832, when it opened in a former mansion on the islet of San Juan.
The role of the judicial body was to hear civil appeals. It was also in charge of internally appointing the governor and other officials; resolving administrative issues, along with the governor; supervising the lower courts and resolving jurisdictional problems among them; hearing cases against the governor and other public officials; and examining candidates to be lawyers, notaries, prosecutors and others. The decisions of the Royal Territorial High Court had to be appealed to the Supreme Court in Madrid.
The court consisted of the president, a post occupied by the governor, a regent and four magistrates, all named by the central government in Spain. The first high court consisted of Governor Miguel de la Torre, Regent Francisco de Paula Vilches, who was in charge of the judicial work, and Magistrates José Ramón Oses, José Ramón Mendiola, Jaime María de Salas and Antonio de Benavides, who served as prosecutors for civil, criminal and Treasury issues. In 1855, the Tax Ministry was separated from the court and in 1861 the governor was no longer the president of the court.
In 1899, after the change in sovereignty, by order of General John R. Brooke, commander of the territory, the Territorial High Court was abolished and the Supreme Court of Justice was created to be the court of last resort for civil and criminal cases on the island. The judges assigned were José Severo Quiñones, president, José Conrado Hernández, chief justice, and Magistrates Juan Morera Martínez, José de Diego, José María Figueras, Rafael Nieto Abeillé and Luis de Ealo y Domínguez.
With the approval of the Foraker Act in 1900, the military government that had existed on the island since 1898 came to an end and was replaced by a civil government divided into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The judicial branch included the creation of a Supreme Court, District Courts, Municipal Courts and a United States Federal District Court for Puerto Rico.
The Supreme Court consisted of a chief justice and four associate justices named by the president of the United States. The members of the first court were Chief Justice José Severo Quiñones and Associate Justices José Conrado Hernández, José María Figueras, Rafael Nieto Abeillé and Louis Sulzbacher. The latter two were replaced by James Harvey McLeary and Adolf Grant Wolf.
In 1952, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a new system of government based on a constitution with its own bill of rights, was created. The Constitution and the Judicial Law established the creation of a General Court of Justice, led by the Supreme Court, which would be the court of last resort, and the Court of First Instance, which consisted of the District Court.
The Supreme Court consisted of a chief justice and four associate justices, whose numbers could be increased by law if the court requested it, as happened in 1961 when the number of associate justices was increased to eight, and in 1975, when it was reduced to six.
Today, the Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and six associate justices. The governor of Puerto Rico names the candidates for justices and the senate confirms or denies the nomination. A person can serve as a justice of the Supreme Court until age seventy, the retirement age.
The Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the Constitution and the laws of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but it does not have jurisdiction over federal laws. It also regulates the law profession on the island. The court serves as a court of appeals and its decisions are sources of law, or in other words, they establish precedent.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 11, 2014.
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