Suit Seeks to Force Congress’ Hand on Puerto Rico

Posted October 1, 2003 at 3:48pm

Senate lawyers are seeking to dismiss a lawsuit demanding that Congress finally determine the status of Puerto Rico, the island territory ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Puerto Rico on behalf of a San Juan businessman who claims to have been harmed by the unresolved status of the territory, seeks to end what it called “the unnatural status of permanent colonialism.”

Nicolas Nogueras, who was expelled from the Puerto Rico Senate but cleared of federal tax evasion charges in 1999, filed the suit on behalf of his client, Josue Orta-Rivera. Both men are identified with the Puerto Rico party advocating statehood.

The complaint said that the Constitution does not “permit perpetual colonialism” over Puerto Rico and that the need for the United States to help organize Puerto Rico that existed after the Treaty of Paris does not exist today. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1898, transferred the island to the United States from Spain.

The lack of full citizenship has caused “intentional infliction of emotional distress, humiliation, and loss of self esteem, subjecting plaintiff to ridicule, scorn and attacks on his pride and dignity, in an amount no less of $1 million, which Congress will have to pay to plaintiff and all other said Puerto Ricans,” the complaint said.

The suit asks the court to order Congress to comply with the Treaty of Paris and decide the status of Puerto Rico. All Members of the House and Senate — including Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner, who holds a nonvoting seat in the House — are individually named in the lawsuit.

In a motion to dismiss filed last week, the Senate legal counsel said the suit should be dismissed for a host of procedural reasons. In addition to the lack of standing by the plaintiffs to bring the suit, the Constitution would bar it because of the Speech or Debate Clause and the sovereign immunity of the United States. The suit also asks the court to decide a question it has no role in deciding, the brief for the Senate argued.

A similar motion to dismiss is expected to be filed later this month by the House general counsel.

The Senate brief contended that the suit was brought “to advance a political agenda regarding the status of Puerto Rico.”

Citizenship was granted to residents of Puerto Rico in 1917, and the island became a commonwealth in 1952. In 1998, the House voted 209-208 to approve legislation authorizing a plebiscite that would allow Puerto Ricans to vote on statehood, independence and free association as final status options. The legislation, however, died in the Senate.

Currently, President Bush has continued a Cabinet-level task force begun during the Clinton administration to offer recommendations on deciding the status of Puerto Rico.