2 minute read

Puerto Rico and the United States

Historical Background

The island was inhabited by the Taino (Arawakan-speaking) when Christopher Columbus first saw it in 1493. The first Spanish-appointed governor named the island "Puerto Rico," meaning "wealthy port." Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony for more than 400 years, until the SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, which ended when Spain and the United States signed the TREATY OF PARIS on December 10, 1898. Ratified by the U.S. Senate a year later, the treaty obliged Spain to cede sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the United States as a condition of peace.

Congress is given broad powers to govern U.S. territories by the federal Constitution. U.S.C.A. Const. Art. IV, s. 3, cl. 2. Congress exercised these powers in Puerto Rico first by establishing an interim MILITARY GOVERNMENT, which lasted until April of 1900, when it passed the Foraker Act, 31 Stat. 77. The Foraker Act declared that the inhabitants of Puerto Rico were "entitled to the protection of the United States," and established the first civil government on the island.

The act authorized the president of the United States to appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate, the governor of Puerto Rico, its chief executive officers, and the justices of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. The act also created the Puerto Rico legislature and authorized its popularly elected representatives to exercise local lawmaking powers, subject, in all instances, to congressional VETO. Under the act, Puerto Rico was given the right to select a "resident commissioner" to represent the island before the U.S. House of Representatives. The resident commissioner, a position that continues to exist into the twenty-first century, has authority to speak and introduce legislation before the House but has no right to vote, except on committees.

The Foraker Act established a U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico and gave the president the power to appoint the presiding judge, again with the advice and consent of the Senate. In 1915 Congress assigned the District of Puerto Rico to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and provided that appeals from the federal district court of Puerto Rico shall be made to the First Circuit. As of 2003, judges from the First Circuit still travel to Puerto Rico twice each year to hear argument on appeals.

In 1917 Congress passed the JONES ACT, which gave U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Rican residents. 39 Stat. 951, 48 U.S.C.A. section 731. Also known as the "Organic Act," the Jones Act sought to distinguish Puerto Rico from the Philippines and Hawaii. The Philippines was already being groomed for independence, while Hawaii was being groomed for statehood. Through the Jones Act, Congress chose a third, less well-defined status for Puerto Rico as an "unincorporated territory" of the United States, which means that the benefits and protections offered by the U.S Constitution are not fully applicable to Puerto Rico. No current U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, were deemed incorporated as of mid-2003.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Prohibition Party to Pure theory of lawPuerto Rico and the United States - Historical Background, Puerto Rico Achieves Greater Autonomy, Recent Developments, Further Readings