The democratic-liberal system of government that operates in Puerto Rico privileges individual and collective civil rights that the government is obligated to respect and codify in law, because they are considered natural and inalienable under modern liberal ethics. In Puerto Rico’s case, these rights are specifically listed in the Commonwealth Constitution of 1952 and define the framework of the state’s relationship with citizens. These individual rights, also called civil rights, are defined in juridical literature as political rights. It can be argued, therefore, that the fundamental purpose of the judicial branch, particularly the Supreme Court, is to protect these rights. This also justifies the branch’s independence from the political powers of the executive and legislative branches. In other words, the judiciary’s primary responsibility is to avoid arbitrary use of power by government administrators and dominant social powers and to serve to guarantee the rights and obligations of both the state and the citizens, as written in the Constitution and the law.

For this purpose, Article 2 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico establishes a Bill of Rights with 18 sections that cannot be altered by political powers except through approval in a popular referendum. The Bill of Rights summarizes the island’s political vision by establishing the basic principles that govern the relationship between the state and the citizens. It embodies the libertarian and republican values that define not only the form of government, but also the form of daily coexistence, both interpersonal and institutional relationships. Further, an earlier section of the Constitution (Section 19) opens the door to the inclusion of additional rights that may be recognized in the future as important for democratic life: “the enumeration of rights is not intended to be restrictive and does not presume the exclusion of other rights belonging to the people in a democracy. Nor is it intended to restrict the ability of the Legislative Assembly to approve laws protecting the lives, health and well being of the people.”

The Bill of Rights of the Commonwealth Constitution (Article II):

· Section 1. Under the principle of human dignity and the equality of all under the law, this section prohibits discrimination based on race, color, gender, birth, origin or social condition, or political or religious ideas.

· Section 2. Guarantees universal suffrage, the right of all citizens to vote.

· Section 3. Prohibits the approval of laws that restrict the establishment of any religion and ensures free exercise of religious worship.

· Section 4. Guarantees the rights of expression, the press, of assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

· Section 5. This section establishes the right to education and requires the state to maintain a system of free primary and secondary public education. Although it also establishes the rights of private education, the section prohibits the use of public funds for schools or institutions that are not public.

· Section 6. Refers to the right to create private social organizations for legal purposes, with the exception of military and quasi-military organizations.

· Section 7. Establishes equality of all people under the law and prohibits the state from denying any person his or her freedom or property without due process. This section disallows the death penalty and prohibits approval of laws that infringe upon contractual obligations.

· Section 8. Protects against attacks on honor, reputation and private life. This is the disposition that prohibits libel.

· Section 9. This section establishes the most important right in a capitalist system: the right to private property. Under this disposition, the state cannot negatively affect private property without providing compensation based on market criteria and the application of strict procedures. It also prohibits the expropriation of presses or publication media.

· Section 10. This section limits the arbitrary application of police measures by the state. It establishes the protection of “persons, homes, papers and effects against unreasonable registration, seizures and searches.” It also prohibits wiretapping and limits registration, seizures and searches by the state to cases in which probable cause exists and the details of the police action are described under oath.

· Section 11. This section addresses criminal procedures and specifies the rights of the accused to a speedy and public trial, to receive a copy of the accusations, to face witnesses against him or her, to compel witnesses to appear on his or her behalf, to legal representation and to the presumption of innocence. In the case of felonies, the accused has the right to a trial by jury (consisting of twelve peers) whose verdict must be agreed to by at least nine members. Other rights specified in this section are:

–The right to be released on bond and the bond may not be excessive.

–Preventive detention may not exceed six months.

–Nobody may be exposed to punishment twice for the same crime.

–Nobody may be forced to incriminate himself through his own testimony.

· Section 12. Establishes that slavery, forced servitude and cruel and unusual punishment are prohibited. It also prohibits approval of laws ex post facto (applying to past events) and convictions without a trial.

· Section 13. Establishes that the writ of habeas corpus (the right of the detained to appear before a court to determine if the arrest was legal and should be upheld) will be granted quickly and free of cost. It also declares that military authority will be subordinate to civil authority.

· Section 14. Prevents granting of titles of nobility or other inherited honors and prohibits state officials from receiving gifts, donations and decorations from foreign countries.

· Section 15. Prohibits the employment of minors under fourteen years of age in any occupation that is prejudicial to health, morals or physical safety. It also prevents imprisonment of a minor under sixteen years of age.

· Section 16. Recognizes the rights of all workers to:

–Freely choose their occupation and to resign it.

–Receive equal pay for equal work.

–A reasonable minimum wage.

–Protection against risks to health or personal safety.

–A regular workday that does not exceed eight hours.

–Compensation at a rate of one and a half for work in excess of the daily limit.

· Section 17. Establishes the rights of workers for private companies and public corporations to organize and collectively bargain: in other words, to negotiate directly with their employers through representatives that they have freely selected.

· Section 18Guarantees the right to strike, to picket and other labor actions.

· Section 19. Establishes that the rights enumerated in Sections 1 through 18 are not intended to be restrictive.

· Section 20. The Commonwealth also recognizes the following social rights:

a. To receive a free primary and secondary education.

b. To obtain employment.

c. To enjoy a standard of living that ensures health, well-being, food, clothing, medical assistance and necessary social services.

d. Social protection for unemployment, illness, old age and physical disability.

e. The right of all women to receive consideration for pregnancy or breastfeeding and the right of all children to receive care and special assistance.

The Bill of Rights ends by reaffirming the state’s duty to promote the freedom of citizens and to expand the system of production to ensure the most equitable distribution of its economic results.

By adding these social (collective) rights to the list of individual political rights, the Commonwealth Constitution’s Bill of Rights was in a leading position in social-democratic moral policy in the modern world. In this context, the executive and legislative branches are not just required to respect the political rights of citizens to direct their own individual, family and professional lives at all times (the so-called democratic rights), but are also required to promote economic equality (freedom as a product of just distribution of wealth) through the implementation of public policies “that tend to meet this objective in the most favorable way possible.” This issue of social rights, particular in terms of distribution of wealth, is one of the deepest and most relevant ideological debates in the contemporary world.

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

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