Two PR cases up for SCOTUS review

Update 12-4-15 to reflect that SCOTUS accepted writ on Franklin and will hear the case in 2016. 

It is rare for a case involving Puerto Rico to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. This term, however, there are two.

Gil and Puerto Rico attorney John Mudd discuss both cases in today’s 30-minute podcast.

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Franklin California Tax-free Trust v. Puerto Rico

The first case, Franklin California Tax-free Trust v. Puerto Rico challenges the validity of the island’s bankruptcy law passed by the Puerto Rico Legislature in 2014. The Puerto Rico bankruptcy law is also often described as “Criollo Bankruptcy” or the “Recovery Act”.

On 12-4-15–one week after our podcast was recorded–the US Supreme Court  consolidated Acosta-Febo v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust  with Franklin California Tax-free Trust v. Puerto Rico and agreed to hear the unified case.  No hearing date has been set. 

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Pueblo v. Sánchez Valle: A 5th Amendment Case

The second case Pueblo v. Sánchez Valle has already been accepted by SCOTUS. Oral arguments are scheduled for January 2016.

This is a technical and fascinating case about the mercurial legal relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico since it came into possession of the U.S. as a result of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish American War in 1898.

Sánchez Valle appears to  largely come down to a question of whether or not the Constitution of Puerto Rico, approved by the island population in a 1952 referendum, creates a entity equivalent to a U.S. state with its own sovereign powers. The question arises because the PR Constitution was subject to Congressional and Presidential approval.

In September 2008 the defendant, Luis Sánchez Valle, was charged by Commonwealth prosecutors on weapons charges. Before his case could reach trial in the Commonwealth’s courts, however, a federal grand jury indicted him on federal charges for the same crimes. He pled guilty to the federal charges, served  five months in jail, and was released on three year’s probation.  

His attorneys appealed the case to the PR appeals court, maintaining that, unlike the 50 states, Puerto Rico does not have its own independent sovereign authority to charge and try defendants. Instead, they argued, it receives its authority to prosecute crimes via powers rooted in the Constitution of the United States–which, of course, is the same authority used to prosecute Federal crimes. Therefore, to try a defendant in both federal and Puerto Rican courts for the same crime using powers derived from the same source would violate the 5th amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits

The trial court agreed and dismissed the charges.

Lawyers for another defendant quickly made the same claim. Like Sánchez Valle, Jaime Gómez Vázquez had been charged with weapons charges in both the federal and Commonwealth courts. He pled guilty in federal court, served 18 month in prison and was released on three year’s probation.

The trial court ruled as it had done with Sánchez Valle, dismissing the charges.

Both men would have faced significantly longer prison sentences had they been convicted under Commonwealth charges. The island has some of the strictest gun laws in the U.S.

The Commonwealth of  Puerto Rico appealed both dismissals to the PR Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s rulings.

Lawyers for both defendants appealed to the PR Supreme Court. The court accepted the cases and consolidated them for the purpose of determining whether or not the PR charges amounted to double jeopardy.

After hearing the case a divided Puerto Rican Supreme Court agreed with Sánchez Valle’s and Gómez Vázquez’s attorneys in spring 2015. The majority wrote:

“[T]he Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is not a sovereign entity inasmuch as, being a territory, its ultimate source of power to prosecute offenses is derived from the United States Congress.”

Citing significant disagreements between decisions on the question of dual sovereignty for Puerto Rico–in the First and Eleventh Circuit Courts, and in multiple Puerto Rican Supreme Court cases–the defendants’ attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was accepted in October 2015 and a ruling is expected by June 2016.

Until SCOTUS issues that ruling, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court findings in the case are law in the Commonwealth.

This decision became very relevant on Tuesday night, when a Puerto Rican appeals court ruled that a defendant convicted of murder must receive a new trial based on logic from Sánchez Valle.

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The related case of Pablo Casellas: A 6th Amendment Case

The related case involves Pablo Casellas who was originally convicted in 2012 by a Puerto Rico court for murdering his wife. Casellas is from a prominent family (his father was a federal judge) and he has a top-notch legal team. He maintains he is innocent.

In making its ruling on the Casellas case, two of the three judges on the Puerto Rican Appeals Court followed much of the logic of Sánchez Valle.

But Casellas’ case is different in important ways:

  1. The case was heard in a Puerto Rican court on Puerto Rican charges;
  2. Casellas was never charged in federal court for the murder; and
  3. The claim being made on appeal is based on the US Constitution’s 6th Amendment (right to a fair trial). 

Still, the court determined that, based on its interpretation of Sánchez Valle, there was a major problem in the case: the jury verdict was not unanimous (it was 11 to 1).

Puerto Rican courts–like the courts of many mainland states–do not require unanimous jury verdicts; the Puerto Rican constitution requires a ¾ majority.

Unanimous verdicts are required in Federal Court based on previous SCOTUS decisions.  

Since the standards used to judge Casellas in Puerto Rican court were not the same as those that would be used in a federal court, the Puerto Rican Appeals Court ordered a new trial.

The broader impact of Casellas

For Puerto Rico the immediate effect of the Casellas ruling is that hundreds of defendants in murder cases where the conviction on Puerto Rican charges was not unanimous may petition for retrials.

While not all will be granted review–the Casellas case is not precedent, but can be used as part of an argument for review–requests will bog down an already strained criminal court system.

Puerto Rico’s Attorney General César Miranda said Wednesday that he disagrees with the logic used by the Appeals Court and will seek certiorari from the Puerto Rican Supreme Court.

“It is the position of the Department of Justice that the Appeals Court crassly erred in declaring a new trial based on the fact that the verdict was not unanimous…”

If the PR Supreme Court accepts the Casellas case and follows the logic it set out in Sánchez Valle,  there may well be a third PR case headed for SCOTUS in the near future.

SCOTUS’s 2016 ruling in Sánchez Valle will not necessarily affect the Casellas case since the US constitutional claim is different.

About Gil Hall

Currently writing book on PR crises. Working title: "Los Pertrechos: the Story of an Economy". Polyglot prone to prolixity in English, German &, Spanish. Based between San Juan and North Carolina. MBA/MHA.


  1. Excellent backgrounder on appeal by Puerto Rico Government to SCOTUS re decision for Franklin/Oppenheimer in Recovery Act litigation.