(CN) – The 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico can’t vote in American elections, the 1st Circuit ruled, even though the U.S. government signed an international treaty protecting all citizens’ civil and political rights.
In a 2-1 decision, the federal appeals court in Boston held that the Constitution trumped international law in determining whether Puerto Rico has the right to elect its own member to the House of Representatives.
In the majority opinion, Chief Judge Sandra Lynch said voting rights are “limited to the citizens of states.” Puerto Rico residents could only vote in U.S. elections through a constitutional amendment, or if the territory became a state, according to the ruling.
“The constitutional text is entirely unambiguous as to what constitutes statehood; the constitution explicitly recites the thirteen original states as being the states and articulates a clear mechanism for the admission of other states, as distinct from territories,” Lynch wrote. “Puerto Rico does not meet these criteria.”
Lynch added that the right to vote was “given to residents of the states, not to citizens” and that “citizenship alone does not trigger the right to vote.”
All three judges on the circuit panel wrote separate opinions.
Judge Kermit Lipez concurred with Lynch but said the claims should have been argued in front of the court’s entire bench because of the case’s importance and the “deeply troubling” legal issues it presented.
Judge Juan Torruella’s opinion concurred in part, but included a strongly worded dissent.
Citing the International Covenant on Civil Rights and Political Rights, which the U.S. ratified in 1992, Torruella wrote that there could “only be one class of U.S. citizenship” and that anything else would create a “second class … on a permanent or indefinite basis.”
“This is a fundamental constitutional question that will not go away notwithstanding this court’s repeated efforts to suppress these issues,” Torruella wrote. “We can now add to that dismal list the endeavors of the lead opinion. This is a most unfortunate and denigrating predicament for citizens who for more than one hundred years have been branded with a stigma of inferiority, and all that follows therefrom.
“But perhaps even more egregious is the fact that it is this judiciary that has mechanically parroted the outdated and retrograde underpinnings on which this invented inferiority is perpetuated,” Torruella continued. “Such actions, particularly by courts of the United States, only serve to tarnish our judicial system as the standard-bearer of the best values to which our nation aspires.”
Lynch, however, dismissed her dissenting colleague’s concerns.
She wrote that the treaty was not “self-executing” under domestic law, and that treaty obligations could not override the Constitution.
The class action filed by lead plaintiff Gregorio Igartua, joined in part by the Puerto Rico government, was another attempt by U.S. citizens in the territory to gain voting rights.
The case is Igartua’s fourth action before the 1st Circuit on the issue. In 2005, the court rejected Igartua’s claims that citizen-residents should be allowed to vote in presidential elections.