The Puerto Rico Court System

There is much internal and external debate as to whether Puerto Rico should or should not become a state. The residents of Puerto Rico in the past have either rejected statehood or even more significantly, have chosen to retain Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status. Recent legislation in the form of HR 2499 was recently passed in the House of Representatives. If passed, HR 2499 would give Puerto Rican voters the options of statehood, independence, or to have an “independent free" association with the U.S. The latter option would basically maintain the status quo commonwealth status Puerto Rico currently enjoys (Portnoy, 2010).

Statistics vary but currently, most Puerto Ricans it appears, would select statehood. Statistics posted in the Puerto Rico Herald state the following: 21% would select independence; 58% would select statehood; and would select independence with free association with the U.S. (Hot Button Issues). This paper will discuss the design and establishment of Puerto Rico’s new judicial system based on the premises that the statehood issue was put to vote, Puerto Ricans chose statehood, and Congress ratified Puerto Rico becoming the 52nd state.

Before we can move forward with a new design, we must first understand Puerto Rico’s current judicial structure which is not too unlike many of our current states however, I believe can be improved upon. At the top of the judicial hierarchy is the Supreme Court. It is led by seven justices that are appointed by the Governor. The next lower level is the Court of Appeals in which 39 judges currently sit. Next are the District Courts and Municipal Courts. Puerto Rico has 12 judicial districts and a District Court in which each district is represented by at least one judge. The court system also employs a variety of other court players such as clerks, probation officers, and court reporters. Additionally, there is a United States Attorney, a United States Marshall, United States Magistrates, and bankruptcy judges (Government, 2010).

In choosing how to set up Puerto Rico’s new state court system, I borrow court concepts from the States of Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina as illustrated in Figure 1. I modeled the Supreme Court after the state of Florida. I modeled the Courts of Appeals after the state of Tennessee in that Tennessee has separate Courts for criminal and civil appeals. I modeled the Circuit Court from the state of Florida minus functions of family and juvenile issues. For family and juvenile issues, I modeled the court structure after the state of South Carolina by combining family and juvenile cases under a single family court structure. Finally, I modeled the Municipal Courts after the Tennessee Municipal Courts combined with elements of Florida County Courts.

In proposing my plan, I will begin with discussions of the lower courts and work my way up to the Supreme Court. The lowest courts in the new Puerto Rico court structure are the Municipal Courts. Puerto Rico currently has 78 municipalities. I would structure the Municipal Courts geographically after a proposal that was presented by Puerto Rico representative penepé Eric Rivera Correa. He proposed reducing the current municipality count from 78 to 20 (Legislator, 2009). Therefore, there would be 20 Municipal Courts.

Subject matter jurisdiction of the Municipal Courts will be limited primarily to municipal ordinance violations and misdemeanors as established by statutes. Jurisdiction also includes hearing civil dispute cases such as tort contract, small claims, and real property that involve monetary disputes of $15,000 or less (Florida's County Courts). Municipal courts will not have primary jurisdiction over municipal ordinances if the ordinances are the same as state laws. In these instances, the Circuit Court will have jurisdiction over those instances and first right of refusal (The Guide to Tennessee Courts, 2010). All Municipal Court trials will be non-jury trials. One judge will preside over these hearings (Florida's County Courts, n.d).

To qualify as a Municipal Court judge, the individual must be an attorney and member of the Puerto Rico Bar for a period of no less than five years. There are no minimum age limits however, the maximum age is 70. The judicial candidate must also be a resident of the municipality of the judicial seat they are running for (Florida’s County Courts, n.d). Judicial selection and retention is by merit and is a non-partisan process. In order to appear on the ballot, the judicial candidate must pay a fee or present a signed petition, signed by at least one percent of the voters in the represented municipality, requesting that the judicial candidate appear on the ballot. Elections are held every six years with the winner being the judge with the most votes. A majority of 50 percent of the votes is not required. At the completion of their six year term, a sitting judge is required to repeat the process in its entirety as reelection is required. There are no term limits (Methods of Judicial Selection: Florida, 2010). In the event that there is an interim judicial vacancy, the Puerto Rico Judicial Council will forward a list of three nominees for the municipal council to vote on for interim replacement.

The next courts we will discuss are the Circuit Courts. Geographical jurisdiction will see the island divided into thirds with two Circuit Courts serving seven municipalities and one Circuit Court serving six municipalities. Serving alongside the Circuit Courts will be co-located Family Courts. Emphasized is the fact that that there is no over lapping subject matter jurisdiction between the two courts. They are co-located as a matter of having the same geographical jurisdiction.

Circuit Court subject matter jurisdiction covers all civil and criminal matters that the Municipal Courts do not have jurisdiction by statute over. The Circuit Court is the highest trial court in Puerto Rico. It also hears appeals from the Municipal Courts. All trials except for appeals are by jury. Trials will be conducted before one judge. Appeals are heard by three-judge panels sitting en banc. Since Puerto Rico commonwealth currently does have the death penalty, neither will the newly founded state. The Circuit Courts hear all civil disputes that involve more than $15,000. Other civil matters heard are: tort contract; tax disputes; estates; mental health adjudication matters; and cases involving disputes of legal rights and responsibilities. The Circuit Court will also hear and issue injunctions as appropriate involving requests to prevent acts that are asserted to unlawful. Circuit Courts will has exclusive jurisdiction over felony cases. Circuit courts will also issue as appropriate extraordinary writs of certiorari and other writs as necessary (Florida's Circuit Courts).

To qualify as a Circuit Court judge, an individual must be an attorney and member of the Puerto Rico Bar for a period of no less than five years. The judicial candidate must also be a resident of the circuit of the judicial seat they are running. The process for appearing on the ballot is the same as for a Municipal Court judge. Once on the ballot, voters will elect with the winner being the individual with the most votes. Elections are non-partisan. Circuit Court judges serve for a term of six years with retention and re-election criteria being the same as that of the Municipal Court. Sitting judges will select a chief judge who is responsible for oversight of all Circuit Court administrative manners (Florida's Circuit Courts). Interim judicial vacancies are handled in a different manner than in the Municipal Courts. In the event that there is a judicial vacancy, the Judicial Merit Selection Commission will forward a list of three nominees to the legislature who will then vote on the interim replacement. The Judicial Merit Selection Commission will be discussed in more detail under the Courts of Appeals.

Family Courts will be organized along the same lines as the Circuit Courts. Geographical jurisdiction is the same. Subject matter jurisdiction is exclusive in that the court presides over all domestic relations and juvenile cases. The Family Court will also hear all traffic and criminal cases that would otherwise be considered criminal except for the fact that they were committed by a juvenile. Domestic cases heard include: marriage; divorce; legal separation; child custody; custody and visitation; adoption; alimony; support; and marital property. Serious criminal cases may be transferred to the Circuit Court depending on circumstances of the crime and repeat offender status of the juvenile (Family Court, 2010). Judge qualification criteria, elections, term length, and filling of interim judicial vacancies for the Family Courts will be the same as it is for the Circuit Courts.

Puerto Rico will have two appellate courts, the Court of Civil Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals with geographical jurisdiction over the entire state. They have the authority to “issue the extraordinary writs of certiorari, prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus, as well as all other writs necessary to the complete exercise of their jurisdiction" (District Courts). Additionally, the Court of Appeals will have the power review all executive branches of government state agency actions. Appellate Court reviews of cases are usually final however, litigants may request a review from the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court is under no obligation to accept the disputed cases.

Court of Appeals hearings do not include witnesses, juries or testimonies. Instead, attorneys present oral and written arguments to be considered. The Courts of Appeal hear appeals in three-judge panels. There are no juries, witnesses, or testimony. The three-judge panel reviews oral and written arguments presented by attorneys (Court of Appeals).

To qualify as a judge on the Court of Appeals, one must be an attorney and member of the Puerto Rico Bar for a period of no less than five years. As with the other courts, there are no minimum age limits. The maximum age is 70. The judicial candidate must also be a resident of the state of Puerto Rico. All Court of Appeals judges are appointed by legislative election. Judges serve for a period of six years after which they are eligible for retention. Retention is by legislative reelection.

In order to be elected or retained, those seeking a judgeship must file with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. The commission will perform background investigations, conduct personal interviews, and administer court procedure examinations with all candidates as part of a thorough screening process. The commission will then prepare a report that summarizes the qualifications of candidates, state whether they feel they are qualified or not, and will nominate three candidates for each vacancy. The nominations are the forwarded to the legislature for election (Methods of Judicial Selection, 2010).

The highest court in the state of Puerto Rico will be the Supreme Court. There will be a total of seven judges of which five must participate in reviewing cases. Four votes in agreement are required for a decision. One justice will be selected by a majority vote to serve as the Chief Justice, a position that rotates every two years. The senior Justice will act as the Chief Justice in the Chief Justices’ absence (Florida State’s Court System).

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court will be identified in the state’s Constitution. The Court will be required to review district court decisions that declare either state statues or any part of the Puerto Rico’s Constitution invalid. The Court will review, at its discretion, any decision by the Courts of Appeals, Circuit Courts, Family Courts, or Municipal Courts however, most decisions reviewed will come from the Courts of Appeals. The Supreme Court has the constitutional authority to “issue the extraordinary writs of prohibition, mandamus, quo warranto, and habeas corpus and to issue all other writs necessary to the complete exercise of its jurisdiction" (Florida State’s Court System). The Supreme Court will also provide advice on constitutional duties and powers to the Governor upon his or her request. Lastly, the Court has the responsibility of promulgating lower court practice and procedure rules.

Supreme Court justices will be appointed by the governor. To be qualified for selection as a Supreme Court Judge, one must be a qualified elector, state resident, and be admitted to practice law in the state 10 years. There is a mandatory retirement age of 70. Justices will serve for a period of six years. In order to be elected or retained, those seeking a judgeship must file with the Judicial Merit Selection Commission. The commission will screen candidates and recommend three to six qualified nominees to the governor. The same process will apply to any interim vacancies. The governor will then appoint one of the commission's nominees (Methods of Judicial Selection: Florida, 2010). If the governor fails to make a timely selection from the list of nominees, the list will be sent to the state legislature for selection.

In an effort to ease court case loads, the Puerto Rico court system will utilize court-connected mediation and arbitration programs. Typical cases that will be referred to mediation and arbitration include: civil actions for monetary damages; landlord and tenant disputes; debt collections; medical malpractice; custody, visitation, or other parental responsibility issues; dependency, child, or a family in need of services (Florida Dispute Resolution Center, 2010).

Puerto Rico will have strict attorney ethical standards and enforcement of those standards. The standards will be enacted to protect the public and the administration of justice from lawyers who have not properly discharged their duties to their clients or have acted in an unethical manner. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court has the exclusive authority to regulate discipline and removal of lawyers. They are assisted in this process by the Puerto Rico Bar Association. The Bar is the primary investigator for all lawyer discipline issues. Investigation of lawyer misconduct can be initiated by the Bar acting on its own behalf, by a judge, or by a member of the public bringing potential misconduct to the Bar’s attention. If, after an investigation is completed, probable cause that misconduct was found to exist and discipline warranted, the Bar counsel will file a formal complaint against the accused lawyer with the Supreme Court (Inquiry Concerning A Florida Lawyer, 2005).

Forms of lawyer discipline are diverse. They include: disbarment; suspension; public reprimand; admonishment; probation; continuing education; and retaking of the bar examination. Discipline will be imposed after a trial if required and on order of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico (Standards for Imposing Lawyer Sanctions, 2005).

Judicial ethics, standards, and enforcement will be as equally strict as those of attorneys. Alleged misconduct by Puerto Rico judges will be investigated by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). The JQC is an independent organization that will be created by the Puerto Rico Constitution for this purpose. It will have the power to discipline and remove judges who violate standards of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Code of Judicial Conduct establishes standards for ethical conduct of judges (Judicial Qualifications Commission Cases Pending in the Florida Supreme Court).

The JQC can either investigate complaints made by individuals or it can investigate judges on its own initiative.  All initial complaints, investigations, and proceedings are confidential. This is to protect judges from damages that may be caused by frivolous allegations. Investigations can be performed any time during the tenure of a judge to include the year following completion of office. Once the JQC files a Notice of Formal Charges with the Supreme Court, confidentiality of the proceedings ends and the proceedings become a matter of public record. The JQC will then conduct hearings, hearing arguments from both sides. Once the hearings are concluded, the JQC will forward its findings and recommendations to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court for action. If the Supreme Court decides to discipline, it can choose from one or more of the following: no discipline; public reprimand; fine; suspension from office; and removal from office. Of important note is the fact that the Puerto Rico House of Representatives has authority to impeach judges. Once impeached, judges are tried for misconduct in the Puerto Rico Senate and are subsequently removed from office by impeachment if found guilty (Judicial Qualifications Commission Cases Pending in the Florida Supreme Court).

In conclusion, I attempted to use what I considered were the best attributes of other state’s judicial structures and processes. Keeping in mind that this is a newly founded state, all commonwealth Bar and time served requirements are to be honored. Those already serving in a judicial capacity will be grandfathered into the State system. I believe that this system will reflect the desires and wishes of the people through representation by their state legislatures and municipal councils. Additionally, the Governor has a voice through his selection of the Supreme Court justices. Finally, all attorney and judicial misconduct are a matter of public record.