The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico performs its judicial functions as a collegial body, meaning that the cases presented to it for consideration are decided by the majority of the justices and the chief justice of the court is just one among equals. The chief justice’s vote, when cases are decided, is equal to the other justices’ votes. The Constitution is clear that “all decisions of the Supreme Court will be adopted by a majority of its justices” and specifies that “no law will be declared unconstitutional other than by a majority of the number of justices that make up the court.”

The Constitution does give the chief justice additional powers, however, that are not shared with the associate justices. This makes the chief justice the undisputed leader of the judicial branch. The full court has the authority to adopt rules of evidence and civil and criminal procedure and present them to the Legislative Assembly for consideration. The court also has the power to adopt rules for the administration of the courts (“subject to the laws regarding supplies, personnel, allocation and auditing of funds and other applicable laws of the government in general”). Only the chief justice, however, has the power to administer the judicial system, which includes naming an administrative director “who will serve at the discretion of said magistrate” (Article 5, Section 7 of the Constitution).

It has been argued that the Commonwealth Constitution grants these administrative powers to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and not to the full court, based on the belief that while the full court works best for deciding judicial cases, it is not best for the efficient management of public administration. Therefore, while the full court has the authority to adopt general rules and procedures, the administrative responsibility is assigned solely to the chief justice. The chief justice presides over both the Supreme Court and the entire judicial branch.

In the general political competition between the political parties for control of the state power structures, the power to name a party member to the post of chief justice takes on a singular importance, due to the broad administrative powers he or she has. As we have seen in recent years, it is not enough for a political party to have a majority of the Supreme Court justices. While partisan control over the appointment of justices can be consolidated by the executive (the governor) working in concert with the majority in the Legislative branch, access to the administrative structure of the judicial branch, for purposes of political patronage (and ideological control) is only possible through the chief justice. And since this appointment is for life (until the obligatory retirement age), the judicial branch has been exposed less to the short-term personnel changes that usually accompany electoral cycles. In this context, the composition of the judicial branch does act in favor of a true separation of powers, even though this democratic principle is under constant siege by the political parties.

The chief justice also has another political power of particular importance. The Constitution establishes that the electoral districts for senators and representatives must be revised every ten years, based on the demographic data from the most recent official census. Because some districts lose population and others gain, the principle of electoral equality (one citizen, one vote) requires that the districts be redrawn periodically, but without changing the total number of districts. To carry out this task, a board of three people was created, consisting of the chief justice of the Supreme Court (who chairs the board) and two additional members appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. These two additional members, according to the Constitution, cannot be members of the same party. The purpose of this constitutional rule is to prevent one political party from dominating the work of the Electoral Redistribution Board and making decisions that favor its particular interests. This appears to have been the case, so far. It is not difficult to imagine that an arbitrary realignment of the districts could, in effect, alter the results of the elections. The idea behind this mechanism is that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, due to his or her professional and personal prestige and separation from party dynamics, can show a spirit of independent fairness that neutralizes the natural tendency of political parties to take advantage of and abuse power.

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

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