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A Look Into The Inner Workings Of Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court

Amid concerns the government is uncertain and somewhat paralyzed, Supreme Court justices agree the judicial branch is working at full capacity


April 28, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Two out of three branches of government seem to be having difficulties getting along, let alone getting things done. Amid concerns in the public and private sector that the government is uncertain and somewhat paralyzed, Supreme Court Justices Federico Hernández Denton and Francisco Rebollo López both agree the Supreme Court is working at full capacity, even if there are only six judges in the Supreme Court, as opposed to seven judges prior to former Justice Baltasar Corrada del Río’s mandatory retirement at age 70.

Chief Justice Hernández Denton said the judicial branch is operating effectively. "Its independence from the other two branches of government, mainly due to the fact that judges are appointed for longer terms that might or might not coincide with political elections, allows us sufficient independence. Judges are appointed for either 12 years, 15 years, or, in our case, we are appointed for life, with only the constitutional mandate stating that at age 70 we must retire," said Hernández Denton.

"Our employees, our judges, everyone who labors in the judicial branch know that the day after the elections their jobs are secure. That is the independence. We benefit by not being part of the political scheme. Our independence also gives continuity to our work. We have created a commission on judicial reform whose plans extend to the year 2025. That is almost impossible to make in the legislative or the executive branches, for obvious reasons," stated Hernández Denton.

"I have held office for the past 23 years," said Rebollo López, who is currently the justice with the most seniority in the Supreme Court and who also served as interim chief justice when former Chief Justice Andreu García retired. "Even if we are appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate, judges enjoy not only security but a definite continuity. Some of my employees have been with me for over a decade. We benefit from the independence of being kept isolated from the scrutiny of the political process," said Rebollo López.

Puerto Rico’s constitution provides mandatory retirement for judges in the Supreme Court. Although appointments are for life, an age limit of 70 was imposed in 1952. Over 63 years later, this mandate is still in use, and whether an age limitation should be imposed has generated debate. This differs from the appointment of Supreme Court justices in the U.S., who are appointed for life with no age limitation.

Both justices agree the constitutional mandate regarding age limitation should be kept, but also stated that great jurists have been lost due to this mandate, former Justice Corrada del Río being one of them. "Corrada del Río epitomized excellence. He was both laborious and could have continued to work endlessly for this court," said Hernández Denton.

"Back in 1952, a 70-year-old man was considered decrepit. Nowadays, this isn’t the case. Consider don Luis A. Ferré, who was lucid and capable well past his 85 years of age," stated Rebollo López. "Although I do believe the constitutional mandate should be amended to maybe 75 years, I don’t believe it should be eliminated," he pointed out.

"It is important to allow new blood every so often," said Hernández Denton. On a similar note, Rebollo López stressed the necessity for renewal of the court. "I am set in my ways, but there comes a time when one must sit down and allow new and somewhat different ideas to refresh the court system," said Rebollo López.

"On a personal note, I do wish to retain the constitutional mandate. Otherwise, if I weren’t forced to leave, I would want to continue working," said Hernández Denton. Despite the vacancy in the Supreme Court, Rebollo López explained there is a mechanism that secures every case will be resolved. "In case of an impasse in the Supreme Court, a resolution of the Appellate Court is then confirmed," he said.

"It is important to clarify that the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico isn’t the head the Supreme Court. Our votes are all equally weighed. The chief justice is the head of the judicial branch and its administrator," said Rebollo López.

As to the distribution of case load, now that there are only six judges, both Hernández Denton and Rebollo López agreed the amount left by Justice Corrada del Río is minimum. "Corrada del Río was an assiduous and extremely prolific justice. He left almost no affairs unfinished. Fortunately, the workload has remained consistent, and we have been able to continue our duties with no delays," said Hernández Denton.

"We want to emphasize that despite the vacancy in the Supreme Court, despite the difficulties encountering the legislative and the executive branches, this branch of government, in its entirety, from the Superior Court to the Appellate Court to the Supreme Court, is doing its best to keep the processes moving and working at full capacity," he pointed out.

Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá said nominating the next Supreme Court justice isn’t an urgent matter. "I agree it isn’t an urgent matter, but it is definitely an important matter," said Rebollo López. "It is the responsibility of the executive to attend this." As for the new justice, he said, "We will welcome his or her designation."

On whether the judicial branch should have an active role in the selection process of the next justice of the Supreme Court, Hernández Denton explained the system of checks and balances of Puerto Rico’s constitution shouldn’t be disrupted.

"Although I don’t believe we should interfere with the nomination, I do believe we should have a more active role in the renomination of judges in the Superior and Appellate Courts," stated Rebollo López. He explained that once a judge becomes part of the judicial branch, a process of evaluation is conducted as to their performance. He presides over the Judicial Evaluation Committee. "If he or she performed his or her duties diligently, then the members of the evaluation committee should have a say in their renomination," expressed Rebollo López.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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