The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico establishes that the judicial branch will be led by a Supreme Court consisting of a chief justice and associate justices appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. Although the Constitution sets the number of justices at five, one chief justice and four associates, it gives the Legislature the power to authorize a higher number of justices if the full court requests it. The Supreme Court was first increased to seven justices and later, in 2011, to nine. Appointments to the Supreme Court are for life and they are subject to impeachment procedures for improper conduct only as described in Section 21 of Article II of the Constitution. The Legislature was also given the task of establishing by law the lower levels of the judicial system, which function under the supervision of the Supreme Court: “Judicial power in Puerto Rico will be exercised by a Supreme Court and those other courts that are established by law” (Section 1, Article 5). Today, the judicial branch includes a Court of First Instance, consisting of “Superior” and “Municipal” courts, divided into thirteen judicial regions. Completing the system is an Appellate Court that serves as an intermediary step between the Courts of First Instance and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court justices, like those of the other courts, have a mandatory retirement age of 70.

To create a judicial system with unified jurisdiction, operation and administration, the Constitution establishes that the Supreme Court must always be the court of final instance and, following the principle of separation of powers, it calls for the court to operate under rules it has independently adopted, without control by the other two branches of government. This includes administration and operation of the courts, including rules of evidence and civil procedure, as long as these rules do not violate the applicable laws of the government in general. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has the constitutional authority to manage the administration of the courts and has the power to designate an administrative director.

Today, an Office of Courts Administration (OAT for its Spanish acronym) has been created to meet the administrative obligations of the judicial system, including an Office of Notary Inspection, an autonomous organization attached to the Office of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. While the full Supreme Court is not involved in the administration of the judicial branch (only the chief justice has this constitutional authority), it does have the responsibility of attending to other tasks, such as evaluating the work of judges, disseminating current jurisprudence and maintaining an examining board for lawyers and notaries.

Despite its responsibility, which cannot be delegated, to implement a judicial system and oversee its efficient operation as a mediator between citizens based on a fair and even application of the law, the main role of the judicial branch, and in particular the Supreme Court, is to protect citizens’ rights by applying and interpreting not only the law, but also the principles and values of a free society, as dictated by the current constitutional rules and the aspirations of our political culture. The only institution authorized to interpret the Constitution and resolve conflicts between the public sector and private entities is the judicial branch. It is also called on to resolve jurisdictional conflicts between the other two branches of the government. A professional court system, independent of the other governmental powers, is therefore a citizen’s only reliable protection against the kind of arbitrariness and political and economic abuse of power that often accompanies privilege and inequality. In a society full of contradictions, unpredictable and continuous transformations and deep internal conflicts, freedom is difficult to implement and maintain. But it is also impossible without a judicial branch capable of using its institutional autonomy and successfully confronting the pressures from social and political hierarchies. The Constitution demands it.

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

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