WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Puerto Rico is not sovereign and not free to enforce its own criminal laws despite having its own constitution and elected leaders.
The high court, in a 6-2 ruling, said the Constitution's double jeopardy clause bars the United States and Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898, from prosecuting the same person for the same crime. Justices determined Puerto Rico cannot prosecute people for local crimes if they've already been convicted in federal court on similar charges. Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
"There is no getting away from the past," Justice Elena Kagan wrote. "Because the ultimate source of Puerto Rico's prosecutorial power is the federal government—because when we trace that authority all the way back, we arrive at the doorstep of the U. S. Capitol—the commonwealth and the United States are not separate sovereigns."
The ruling is a victory for Luis Sánchez Valle and Jaime Gómez Vázquez, who were indicted on federal and Puerto Rican weapons charges. They pleaded guilty to the U.S. charges. Sanchez Valle was sentenced to five months and Gomez Vazquez was sentenced to 18 months.
The court found that although Congress in 1950 gave Puerto Rico the right to create its own government under its own constitution, it "does not break the chain" of authority.
"That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico's prosecutors—as it is for the federal government's," Kagan wrote. "The island's Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain."
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the coming weeks in a case involving a local law that would allow Puerto Rico to restructure some $20 billion in debt from its public utilities. Puerto Rican lawmakers are grappling with about $70 billion in debt, hoping Congress will allow Chapter 9 bankruptcy.