Puerto Rico Courts On Trial

by John Marino

September 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOThe federal and local court systems are being thrown into the spotlight as corruption and other cases involving high-profile public figures appear on their dockets.

In recent weeks, a federal jury convicted the executive aide of former Gov. Pedro Rosselló on extortion charges, the latest in a series of corruption cases that stretch back three years.

Meanwhile, the local courts will be the scene of what promises to be one of the most politically-charged trials ever here, after a local judge found cause to try New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera and three other party officials on rioting charges stemming from the flag raising incident on June 20 at the Woman's Affairs Advocate Office.All the action is adding up to a test for both the federal and local court system and could be an indicator of how much faith the Puerto Rican public has in both institutions.

Despite surface criticism, often abrasive, of both institutions, the early indications seem to be that faith in both systems is on the rise, which is good news for Puerto Rican democracy.

The federal court has always been a target for certain ideological groups, who see it as a symbol of the absolute authority of the United States over Puerto Rican affairs. But many everyday residents of Puerto Rico have over the years trusted it more than the local court system, which has from time to time been rocked by criticism over its inefficiency and allegations that some judges were susceptible to bribes.

The ideological attacks against the federal court have been raised again by left-of-center and pro-independence groups by the increasing severity of sentences being handed down against those arrested during anti-Navy protests in Vieques.

But groups on the right began attacking the court after Maria de los Angeles "Angie" Rivera Rangel, Rosselló's 55-year-old former aide, was found guilty of extortion and conspiracy for taking $125,000 in payoffs from four government contractors in exchange for arranging meetings for them with Cabinet officials between 1996 and 2000.

Though several former Rosselló administration officials have been getting charged with corruption, the Rivera case was significant because of her close association with Rosselló and charges raised during her trial that implicated prominent individuals who have yet to be indicted by federal authorities in the schemes.

The fact that the former governor broke his silence on the corruption under his administration during her trial, granting several media interviews, is another indication that the case hit close to home for Rosselló and his followers.

Following the verdict, radio call-in shows, catering to pro-statehood callers, were flooded with calls from residents complaining that federal juries were packed with "left-wingers" and "independentistas." If anything, the opposite is true.

The requirement that federal court juries know English systematically discriminates against the "majority of the resident population," according to a University of Puerto Rico study by economist Elías Gutiérrez. The 2000 Census, for example, noted that over 60 percent of residents reported knowing no English or little English.

Defense lawyers say the English requirement prompts many retired government workers and military personnel to be selected in the jury pools. But federal court rulings have held that a jury need not be an accurate reflection of the community, and trying to introduce the Spanish language into federal court proceedings here would be entirely too burdensome. More importantly, the public-at-large appears to agree more often than not with the verdicts handed down by federal juries -- the best indication that the current system is working.

The local courts, meanwhile, will be put to the test during Pesquera's trial.

The melee prompting the charges was sparked by the irresponsible decision by Women's Affairs Advocate Dolores Fernos to fly only the Puerto Rican flag at its headquarters, an utterly wrong decision at an agency charged with helping female citizens of all political viewpoints. The decision by Pesquera and other officials to force their way into the closed office also struck most observers of an example of bad political behavior.Pesquera has been using the filing of charges against him by the Justice Department to decry the Calderón administration's "persecution" against statehooders.

But he tactfully said he "respected but disagreed" with Judge Lourdes Velázquez to find probable cause against him and the other officials.

Many legal observers -- of all political beliefs -- said the judge had to find probable cause because of the testimony presented at the trial. But most observers predict Pesquera will prevail at trial. That's largely because a jury of his peers -- sure to be made up of statehood, commonwealth and independence supporters -- won't convict him.

The image of local courts has been improving through the convictions handed down against two former lawmakers for corruptionas well as convictions in prominent criminal cases, such as the man who was found guilty of intentionally plunging his infant daughter to her death in a Carolina shopping mall.

The courts also appear to be acting more independently in recent years, with the Popular Democratic Party-packed Supreme Court taking decisions against the Calderón administration, and the Appeals Court, created under Rosselló, siding with the administration often.

The Pesquera case can contribute to this apparent growing faith in the local courts if average Puerto Ricans believe he gets a fair trial.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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