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Puerto Rico Profile: Judge Juan Torruella

June 16, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Last month, Julio Fuentes, a New Jersey judge who was born in Puerto Rico, became the tenth Hispanic member of the U.S. Court of Appeals, the nation’s second highest judicial body. His appointment by President Clinton was yet another sign of the growing importance of Latinos in America, igniting hopes that the next Supreme Court justice might be Hispanic.

Judge Fuentes is certainly among the judicial elite in this country. He is not, however, the first Puerto Rican to be named to the U.S. Court of Appeals. That distinction belongs to Judge Juan Torruella, who for decades has been distinguishing himself as an influential and outspoken American jurist.

Juan Torruella was born in San Juan on June 7, 1933. He graduated from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. In 1957, he received his law degree at Boston University School of Law. Later in his career, he added more degrees, including a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Puerto Rico and a Masters in Law from the University of Virginia.

Torruella spent his first fifteen years as an attorney working in private practice. Then, in 1974, President Ford nominated him for a seat on the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico. Torruella served for the next ten years as a federal judge, until he was appointed by President Reagan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

The First Circuit has jurisdiction over cases that are appealed in Puerto Rico, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode island. After ten years in Boston, where the First Circuit is located, Judge Torruella became its Chief Judge in 1994, giving him the distinction of the being the most senior Puerto Rican judge in U.S. history.

From his spot on the federal bench, and in an influential book and numerous speaking appearances, Judge Torruella has been a powerful and sometimes controversial voice on issues that affect Puerto Rico and the entire United States.

Indeed, he has tackled some of the thorniest issues confronting our nation today. In 1996, he delivered a lecture calling for a re-examination of the country’s drug policies. In a paper entitled "One Judge’s Attempt at a Rational Discussion of the So-Called ‘War on Drugs,’" Torruella aired his dissatisfaction with the emphasis on law enforcement rather than on education in drug prevention. He further declared the need for "a truly national debate about this subject to create a conscience and consensus about these problems."

Judge Torruella has also had the opportunity to examine the controversial issue of school vouchers. In Maine, the state government grants money to parents to send their children to private schools, provided that they are not religious institutions. Last year, a challenge to that practice arose among parents requesting money to send their children to Catholic schools. The case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals last year, and Judge Torruella denied the parents’ request as unconstitutional. "Writ simple, the state cannot be in the business of directly supporting religious schools," he wrote in the opinion.

It has been with regard to issues dealing with Puerto Rico, however, that Judge Torruella has spoken out most strongly.

In 1985, he published The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal, a scathing critique of U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico, and especially of the judicial dimension of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. In the book, Judge Torruella describes the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court decisions at the beginning of the 20th Century that helped define the status of Puerto Rico. He compares them to Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision which introduced the doctrine of "separate but equal" to justify racial segregation. That ruling was overturned in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that sparked the civil rights movement.

According to Torruella, in the case of Puerto Rico, such a reversal, though badly needed, has never occurred. Instead, "the Supreme Court continues to cling to these anachronistic remnants of the stone age of American constitutional law notwithstanding that the doctrines espoused by the Insular Cases seriously curtail the rights of several million citizens and nationals of the United States."

In 1998, Judge Torruella participated in a conference on Puerto Rico’s status held at Yale University. Reflecting upon the 100 years of U.S. control of Puerto Rico, he said that "the disparity of rights that result from this relationship has in my opinion for too long been relegated to the back burners of American constitutional thought and dialogue."

Most recently, he made a ruling in February, 2000, which dealt directly with Puerto Rico’s status. The case, Davila-Perez v. Lockheed Martin Corporation, involved a member of the U.S. military who was killed in an accident at Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico. The wife of the deceased was appealing an earlier decision based on the grounds that Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, as defined in 1952, exempts the island from the rules governing federal workers’ compensation in U.S. territories and possessions. In his decision, Judge Torruella forcefully rejected this argument, affirming that Puerto Rico "is still subject to the plenary powers of Congress under the territorial clause" of the U.S. Constitution, and that "Congress has exclusive jurisdiction over the lands occupied by Roosevelt Roads."

Judge Juan Torruella occupies an unusual position. As a Puerto Rican, he is an ardent advocate of equal rights for the people of the island. As a federal judge, he has sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution. These dual identities, intertwining throughout his career, have led Torruella to conclude that Puerto Rico needs to attain, in accordance with the constitution, a permanent political status with full rights for its people.

Yet the judge in Juan Torruella remains for the most part above the fray, reluctant to take sides in a status debate that he has called "interminable and circular." "If there is any one message which I hope is conveyed by this book," he writes in The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico, "it is the following: Whatever the future holds for this island, its people should strive for the equality which has too long eluded them."

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