Puerto Rico’s ruling party, the Popular Democratic Party, lost little time in delivering a first strike against the opposition party dominated Supreme Court when it enacted Act 18 of 2013, aimed at limiting the Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction and right to review appellate cases by interlocutory petitions. The legislative strike came at a time when several public employees filed a lawsuit challenging Governor Garcia Padilla’s public pension reform. Under Act 18, parties could no longer certify a case straight to the Supreme Court from the Court of First Instance, while avoiding the intermediate court under the special writ of certification. The challenge to the pension reform quickly rose to the Supreme Court who in turn, gave Governor Garcia Padilla a 6-3 strike down.
The Court, strictly on party lines, ruled that Act 18 was unconstitutional in the manner that its limitation of the Court’s jurisdiction went beyond what the Constitution allows for. In a decision filled with strong jabs from each side of the aisle, the Court admonished the Governor for trying to curtail its jurisdiction in what the majority saw was a political attack. Governor Garcia Padilla, who is an attorney, criticized the Court, going as far as calling them “enemies of Puerto Rico”. While the Puerto Rico State Bar chose to remain silent as to the Governor’s unprecedented attack on the Court, Pedro Pierluisi (Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner) came out against the Governor, calling for respect to our Court amongst whatever disagreement one may have. Following the Court’s decision, the PPD’s Party Secretary vowed to present a bill to undue the Court’s recent expansion under Governor Luis Fortuño. The bill would reduce the Court to its size prior to the 2010 expansion (from 9 to 7), effectively eliminating the last two justices appointed to the Court under Governor Fortuño. The bill ignores the fact that the Constitution of Puerto Rico only allows for the change in size of the Court at the petition of the Court, followed by the corresponding legislative action.
In another strike against the Court, Governor Garcia Padilla doubled down on his attack on the Court, claiming that it alone would be to blame if Puerto Rico’s credit rating was downgraded to junk as a result of a hypothetical strike down by the Court of Governor Garcia Padilla’s pension reform bill. The attack is misplaced given that the Court is not responsible for decades of borrowing with no sensible repayment plan in sight, but it (the attack) plays well on the PPD’s more combative wing, which strongly opposes the Statehood party appointed majority in the Court.
As Governor Garcia Padilla (and his PPD dominated legislative majorities) strive to keep the house in order, amidst an economy in recession dipping into depression and less income to tax in order to balance (or try to) the budget, more attacks on the Court can be expected. The Supreme Court gives the PPD the perfect scapegoat as it’s the only branch in government which they do not control and has enough power to throw a major road block on Governor Garcia Padilla’s legislative plan.
Supporters of the Statehood party, on the other hand, will be forced to defend the Court’s majority at all times, given that the Court will now symbolize the last bastion of power held by the Statehood party for the next four years. If the Court does strike down the pension reform bill, it would galvanize both sides of the aisle. The PPD would move to further demonize the Court while the Statehood party praise the Court’s move given its opposition to the pension reform bill.
As the political battles on the Island ensue, the Court will become a more prominent target from the PPD, and its legitimacy will continue to be attacked by those in power.