The Miami Herald
September 14, 2000

Puerto Rico vote drive hit by lawsuits

A judge has said island residents may vote in U.S. presidential elections.

 Special to The Herald

 SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Controversial local legislation that would give Puerto
 Ricans the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections is facing a flurry of legal
 obstacles -- including a challenge by the U.S. Justice Department.

 The legislation, signed into law Sunday by Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rosselló, is
 based on a June decision by San Juan Federal Court Judge Jaime Pieras, who
 declared that as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have a constitutional right to vote in
 national elections.

 Residents of Puerto Rico can vote in presidential primaries, but not in general

 The bill that would give them that right was crafted by the governing pro-statehood
 New Progressive Party.

 It provides for an island-wide vote for slates of eight electoral college candidates
 chosen by the national political parties.

 The action is seen by opponents as an effort by the Rosselló government to
 advance its pro-statehood agenda.

 Under the legislation, Puerto Ricans would chose between candidates of the two
 major parties registered in Puerto Rico -- or other parties that register candidates
 within two weeks of the Nov. 7 election -- on a ballot separate from those for local


 The Puerto Rican Independence Party filed suit Monday in San Juan Superior
 Court on the basis of provisions in the Puerto Rican Constitution stating that the
 relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States can be changed only by
 popular consent and not by the island's legislature.

 ``By allowing a vote in the presidential elections, the [Puerto Rican] government is
 trying to act as if it were a U.S. state, which constitutes a change in the
 relationship between the Commonwealth and the U.S.,'' said Carlos Iván Gorrín, a
 lawyer for the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

 Public funds cannot be used for such a purpose under the local constitution, said

 PROELA, a small political party advocating Puerto Rican independence in ``free
 association'' with the United States, filed a second suit challenging the law on
 similar grounds.

 On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department appealed Pieras' decision to the First
 Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on grounds that a constitutional amendment is
 needed to allow Puerto Ricans to vote. The Boston court deals with federal
 appeals from Puerto Rico.

 ``The language of Article 2 of the Constitution could not be clearer,'' says the
 action signed by Matthew M. Collette and Jacob M. Lewis of the U.S. Justice
 Department's appellate staff's civil divisions. ``Jurisdictions that are part of the
 United States, but are not `states' and do not send senators and representatives
 to Congress, are not empowered to choose electors for president and vice


 Pieras had ruled that the constitutional right of U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico
 to vote for president outweighs congressional power over U.S. territories.

 His decision came in response to a lawsuit filed in April by a group of residents
 led by attorney Gregoria Igartua de la Rosa and ordered the Commonwealth
 government to provide for a vote in the presidential elections ``with all possible

 Independence Party leader and gubernatorial candidate Rubén Berríos charged
 that the push for a presidential vote was a transparent effort by statehood forces,
 led by the lame-duck Rosselló, to advance the statehood cause after failure of two
 plebiscites on the issue during Rosselló's tenure.

 Berríos said that the pro-statehood views of Judge Pieras, a native Puerto Rican,
 are well known.

 ``He is a full-blooded, classic Puerto Rican Republican,'' said Berríos.

 Sen. Kenneth McClintock of the New Progressive Party countered that the issue
 was not even on his party's radar screen before the court decision.