Updated 04:22 PM EST, Thu, Nov 26, 2020

U.S. Supreme Court Hesitant to Treat Puerto Rico as a Sovereign State

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The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether to treat Puerto Rico as a sovereign state with authorities that go further than its status as a territory of the United States.

The justices are doubtful over the idea during discussions in a criminal case involving two men, Luis M. Sánchez Valle and Gómez Vázquez, who were prosecuted on gun charges in local and federal governments in Puerto Rico, the New York Times reported. The pair pleaded guilty to the federal charges, but insisted that they can't be prosecuted for the same crimes in local courts under the Constitution's double jeopardy clause.

According to NBC News, the double jeopardy clause prevents defendants from being tried for the same felony twice. However, there is an exception that allows prosecution under similar state and federal laws despite being separate sovereigns.

Several justices argued that Puerto Rico's power to implement local laws actually comes from Congress, which could take the authority away, NBC News noted.

The case has large political and legal consequences that could affect some issues in the Caribbean island, such as bankruptcy, taxation, and federal benefits, the news outlet listed. The case comes as the Supreme Court gets ready to address a separate dispute later in 2016 over whether the Puerto Rican government can allow its municipalities to declare bankruptcy amid the U.S. territory's financial hurdles.

Justice Elena Kagan said that based on history, Puerto Rico's definitive legal power source is the Congress. Christopher Landau, the lawyer representing Puerto Rico, countered that under the island's constitution "the political power of the commonwealth emanates from the people," NBC News reported.

Landau added that Congress had handed control over Puerto Rico's internal issues when it allowed the island to make its own laws and government. But Justice Antonin Scalia stressed out that doesn't mean Congress couldn't alter the law.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer pushed the high court to limit its decision to double jeopardy purposes.

"If we simply write an opinion and it says, Puerto Rico is sovereign, that has enormous implications. On the other hand, if we write an opinion that says it's just a territory, that has tremendous implications," Breyer explained, as quoted by the New York Times.

He continued that either way, "the implications in law and in politics and everything else are overwhelming."

Barack Obama's administration filed a brief after the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that Puerto Rico was a territory without independent sovereignty. The brief acknowledged the changes it made to briefs filed decades ago, where the Department of Justice insisted that Puerto Rico was a separate sovereign for double jeopardy purposes.

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