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Supreme Court declines to rule on Puerto Rico voting rights

The US Supreme Court [official website] denied certiorari [order list, PDF] on Monday in Igartua v. United States, a case challenging Puerto Ricans' inability to vote in US presidential elections. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] in November 2010 that Puerto Ricans could not vote because Puerto Rico is not a state. The court pointed out that the Constitution explicitly distinguishes between states and territories and only state citizens received congressional representation. Supporters of Puerto Ricans' right to vote argued that Puerto Rico was functionally equivalent to a state, thus it should be permitted to elect congressional representatives. However, the court found that there is a difference between functional equivalency and actual equivalency and also that no prior case law had accepted the "functional equivalent" argument. Supporters also argued that because Puerto Ricans had been granted citizenship, they therefore had the right to vote because voting is fundamental to citizenship. However, the court stated that the Constitution explicitly grants the right to vote to residents of the states, not citizens. Finally, supporters argued that international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [text], requires all citizens to have the right to vote, but the court ruled that US policies are not inconsistent with international law and that international law could not override the Constitution. The US Department of Justice [official website] opposed [opposition brief] the grant of certiorari.

The governor of Puerto Rico approved a referendum [JURIST report] in December to decide whether the territory should maintain its current status or become a state. The referendum is to be held in November and any change in status would need to be approved by the US Congress. The Puerto Rican House of Representatives voted to pass the legislation [JURIST report] to permit the referendum earlier that month. The US House of Representatives approved a bill to establish the referendum [JURIST report] in April 2010, but it was never approved by the Senate. In 2007, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization [official website] called on the US [press release] to quickly resolve the island's political status and release political prisoners. Puerto Ricans last voted on the status of the island in 1998 [results], with the "None of the Above" option winning 50.3 percent, statehood garnering 46.5 percent of the vote and independence only 2.5 percent. The island was established as a US commonwealth in 1952 after Congress adopted the Puerto Rican Constitution. Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917, and the island has been under US control since 1898. Former JURIST Managing Editor Dwyer Arce recently argued that, as US citizens, Puerto Ricans should be entitled to vote [JURIST op-ed] in US presidential elections.

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