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Court Hears Bid To Allow Puerto Ricans To Vote For President D.C. Voting Rights Gains Support On Hill
Puerto Ricans Seek A Voice
Puerto Ricans pleaded with appeals court judges in Boston to grant them the right to vote in presidential elections.
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
May 5, 2005
BOSTON - At an unusual hearing before all seven judges of a federal appeals court, Puerto Rican attorney Gregorio Igartúa de la Rosa Wednesday pleaded that all islanders -- who are U.S. citizens -- should have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections.
''The denial of voting rights includes a denial to citizens who have made the ultimate sacrifice . . . who have risked their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq,'' an emotional Igartúa told the judges. ``It's a serious matter. . . . It's a situation of master and servant.''
Gregory Katsas, deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, responded by urging the judges to adhere to previous rulings from the same court, which denied Puerto Ricans the right to vote until the U.S. territory becomes a state, or the U.S. Constitution is amended to allow it.
Igartúa's passionate request before the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was part of a legal battle that strikes at the heart of a debate that for decades has bitterly divided the island into three camps: those who want Puerto Rico to become the 51st U.S. state, those who support the island's current commonwealth status, and a tiny but vocal minority that prefers independence.
Citing constitutional rights and international accords that the United States has signed, Igartúa argued that Puerto Rico's political status is a separate issue from its people's right to vote. He said the inability to participate in national elections is a violation of rights afforded to all other U.S. citizens, including residents of the District of Columbia, also without statehood. In 1961, the U.S. Constitution was amended to give residents of Washington, D.C., the right to vote.
''Voting rights are human rights,'' he said.
But Katsas argued that international declarations signed by the United States, such as the Organization of American States' Democratic Charter, ''are aspirational documents'' not made by the president or ratified by Congress and ''not legally binding'' in the case of Puerto Rico.
He said the matter ``should be resolved by the political branches . . . and not by the courts.''
It is not known when the judges will issue a ruling.
Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, and the island became a U.S. commonwealth in 1952. Puerto Rico's residents have long served in the U.S. military. But the island's 2.4 million registered voters can't cast ballots to elect the nation's president or vice president. Also, the island's elected representative in Washington does not have a vote in Congress.
During the hourlong hearing, a touchy exchange was triggered when Judge Juan Torruella, who was born in San Juan, questioned Katsas about a phrase in his written argument where he stated that Puerto Ricans have participated in ``their country.''
''What country are you referring to?'' Torruella asked.
''The United States,'' Katsas responded.
``How do they participate in their country?''
''They elect a member to Congress,'' Katsas said.
''Does he get to vote on legislation?'' Torruella asked?
``No sir, he does not.''
Richard Fallon, a Harvard Law School professor, told judges that by denying island residents the right to vote, the U.S. government was violating customary international laws.
''There can be no doubt that the United States is in violation of these norms,'' Fallon said, adding that remedies would include a constitutional amendment, making the island a state or presenting those on the island with a ''genuine opportunity'' to make a definitive decision on their political status.
Puerto Ricans narrowly rejected statehood in two nonbinding referendums, in 1993 and 1998.
13-YEAR COURT FIGHT
Igartúa, who is joined by 11 other plaintiffs, began his legal battle in 1991 when he filed his first suit in federal district court in Puerto Rico seeking equal voting rights for those who live in the U.S. territory.
He lost in his first round of court battles, then won, then lost again in 2000 when the appeals court overturned a district court order that would have allowed voters on the island to participate in the presidential election for the first time. About two million ballots were destroyed.
Last October, after a new round of court action, three judges in Boston's court of appeals ruled that the matter required the review of all seven judges.
Although hopeful that Puerto Ricans will get the right to vote in time for the 2008 presidential elections, Igartúa said he is prepared to take the argument to the Supreme Court and even to the international arena, if necessary.
''Slaves did not end their fight until they were free,'' he said.
Seeking To Vote For President
A case pending before the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston seeks to obtain voting rights in presidential elections for residents of Puerto Rico:
The case has been in and out of court since Puerto Rican attorney Gregorio Igartúa de la Rosa filed his first lawsuit against the U.S. government in November 1991.
Previous court rulings have denied Puerto Ricans the right to vote until the U.S. territory becomes a state, or the Constitution is amended to allow it.
Last October, following a new round of court action, three judges in Boston's court of appeals ruled that the matter required the review of all seven judges.
It is not known when a new ruling will be issued.
D.C. Voting Rights Gains Support On Hill
May 4, 2005
A bill introduced yesterday by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, is called the District's best chance to get voting rights on Capitol Hill.
The D.C. Fairness in Representation Act would allow the District's congressional delegate to vote. In exchange, a temporary seat would give Utah another voting member.
Fellow House Republicans -- including Reps. Chris Cannon and Rob Bishop of Utah -- called the idea "creative" as they spoke in favor of the bill at a press conference.
Utah narrowly missed getting an extra member of Congress during the last census.
Mr. Davis said the measure helps get around the partisan issue of adding a Democratic member to the House by balancing it with a likely Republican.
He joked that this is one bill that can bring agreement between the heavily Republican state of Utah and the District, which leans in favor of Democrats.
Mr. Davis said the bill tries to take out the politics and focus on the issue.
"We're all here for one reason: to correct an historic wrong," he said. "We think this legislation is historic. It is fair. It is constitutional."
Mr. Davis noted that when Alaska and Hawaii gained a congressional representatives in the 1950s, Congress temporarily expanded from 435 to 437 members.
Still, some Democrats who favor voting rights for the District criticized the Davis bill for taking a small step.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, introduced a bill granting full voting rights, including a voting House member and two senators.
But Mrs. Norton said she will support Mr. Davis' bill if that is the one that can move through Congress this year.
D.C. Council members ended a meeting early to show their support on Capitol Hill, as did Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat.
"While we support full voting rights ... this is an extremely important first step," said D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat.
Mr. Davis said he expects to have a senator introduce similar legislation so the measure can pass this year.
"Momentum is building," he said.
Former Rep. Jack Kemp, New York Republican, plans to ask former colleagues to support the bill, saying it is "a statement that Congress can make that the epicenter of the democratic ideal gets a vote."