711C.02/10–952

The Acting Secretary of the Interior (Northrop) to the Secretary of State

My Dear Mr. Secretary: I am pleased to report to you that with the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on July 25, 1952, the people of Puerto Rico have attained a full measure of self-government, consistent with Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States.

The establishment of the Commonwealth marks the culmination of a steady progression in the exercise of self-government initiated with the first organic act for Puerto Rico enacted by the Congress in 1900. That act provided for a governor appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate of the United States, a legislative assembly in which the lower house was elected but the upper house was composed of the heads of executive departments of the government and five other persons, all appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate; and a supreme court, the members of which were also appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, justices of the lower courts being appointed by the governor with advice and consent of the upper house of the legislature. The act provided for Puerto Rico’s representation in the Congress by a popularly elected Resident Commissioner.

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In 1917, the scope of self-government was increased with enactment by the Congress of the Jones Act. Under it, the people of Puerto Rico elected both houses of their legislature, and the popularly elected upper house advised and consented to the governor’s appointment of justices of the lower courts. The President retained authority to appoint the governor, the justices of the supreme court, the heads of the departments of justice and education, and the auditor, but all other heads of executive departments were appointed by the governor. The people of Puerto Rico became citizens of the United States. The protection of a bill of rights patterned on the bill of rights of the United States Constitution was extended to Puerto Rico. Provision for rep-presentation in the Congress remained. The legislature could repass a bill over the governor’s veto, but if the governor did not then approve it, it did not become law unless it received the approval of the President.

In 1946, the President appointed as governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, a Puerto Rican who had formerly been Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico. This was the first time that a Puerto Rican had been appointed governor.

In 1947, the Congress authorized the people of Puerto Rico to elect their governor, beginning with the general election in 1948, and provided a line of succession in the event of a vacancy in the position of governor or of the governor’s temporary absence or disability. The elected governor was authorized to appoint all the members of his cabinet, the heads of the executive departments, including the attorney general and commissioner of education. No change was made in the provisions respecting appointment of the auditor and justices of the supreme court.

In 1948, the candidates for Governor and Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico, who were elected by very substantial majorities, ran on a platform calling for the preservation of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, and for the adoption by Puerto Rico, within that framework, of a constitution of its own drafting. In that election, there were also candidates who advocated statehood for Puerto Rico and independence for Puerto Rico; they were roundly defeated. In accordance with the expressed wishes of the people of Puerto Rico, and in recognition of their political advancement sufficient to enable them to reach an informed judgment as to a desirable political destiny, there was introduced in the Congress a bill to provide for the organization of a constitutional government by the people of Puerto Rico. It was enacted on July 3, 1950 (64 Stat. 319).

That law, unique in the history of United States’ territorial administration, expressly recognized the principle of government by consent, and, declaring that it was adopted in the nature of a compact, required that it be submitted to the voters of Puerto Rico in an island-wide [Page 1431]referendum for acceptance or rejection. If the act were approved by a majority of participating voters, the Legislature of Puerto Rico was authorized to call a constitutional convention to draft a constitution, which would become effective upon its adoption by the people and approval by the President and the Congress. Those provisions of the Organic Act which related to matters of local government would thereupon be repealed, while the remaining provisions of the Organic Act, relating to such matters as Puerto Rico’s economic relationship to the United States, the continued application of Federal laws, and continued representation in Congress, would thenceforth be known as the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act. The Congress made only two stipulations with respect to the content of the constitution to be adopted: that it provide a republican form of government and that it include a bill of rights.

Four political parties participated in the campaign preceding the referendum; two endorsed the act of Congress, one opposed it, and one was divided in its position. On June 4, 1951, 506,185 persons, 65.08 per cent of the 777,675 qualified voters of Puerto Rico, participated in the referendum, and 76.5 per cent of those voting approved the act. On August 27, 1951, ninety-two delegates were elected to a constitutional convention, representing the Popular Democratic, the Statehood and the Socialist parties. The convention met in September 1951 and concluded its painstaking work in February 1952. An official English and an official Spanish version of the constitution were adopted, and the text was published in the four daily newspapers of Puerto Rico in both languages. Copies of the document were distributed throughout the Island.

On March 3, 1952, the constitution was submitted for adoption or rejection. Of the 783,610 qualified voters, 457,562 participated in the referendum. Of these, 374,649 voted to adopt the constitution; only 82,923 disapproved it. On April 22, 1952, the President transmitted the constitution to the Congress, with his approval, and the Congress approved it by Public Law 447, 82d Cong. (66 Stat. 327), signed by the President on July 3, 1952. On July 25, 1952, after final ratification by the constitutional convention to accept the constitution as approved by the Congress, the Governor of Puerto Rico proclaimed the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico under the new constitution.

The constitution of the Commonwealth is markedly similar to that of a State. It establishes a tri-partite form of government, with a popularly elected governor, a popularly elected bi-cameral legislature and a judicial branch. The heads of all executive departments will be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Puerto Rican Senate; appointment of the Secretary of State will also require the consent of the House of Representatives. The President will no longer appoint any member of the executive branch, and the United [Page 1432]States Senate will not participate in the appointment of any official of the government of the Commonwealth.

The Legislative Assembly, which will be elected by free, universal and secret suffrage of the people of Puerto Rico, has full legislative authority in respect to local matters. The Commonwealth has the power to impose and collect taxes, and to contract debts. Acts of the Legislative Assembly will become law upon approval of the Governor, or, in the event that an act is vetoed by the Governor, upon its re-enactment by two-thirds of the total number of members of which each house is composed. The President may no longer prevent a bill repassed over the Governor’s veto from becoming law by disapproving it. The protection of a bill of rights is extended to persons in Puerto Rico. All public officials must take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the constitution and laws of the Commonwealth. Amendments to the constitution may be proposed by the Legislative Assembly, and will be voted on at a referendum, becoming effective if ratified by a majority of the electors voting thereon. In approving the constitution, the Congress placed no limitations on the substance of future amendments, except to provide that they shall be consistent with the act approving the constitution, with the applicable provisions of the Federal Constitution, with the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, and with the act of Congress authorizing the drafting and adoption of a constitution.

The judiciary of the Commonwealth is independent under the constitution. The justices of the Supreme Court will no longer be appointed by the President but will be appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate of Puerto Rico. Justices will hold office during good behavior and may be removed, after impeachment, for causes specified in the constitution. The number of justices (four associate justices and a chief justice) may be increased only by law at the request of the court itself. No judge may make a direct or indirect financial contribution to any political organization or party, or hold any elective office therein, or participate in any political campaign or be a candidate for elective office unless he has resigned his judicial office at least six months prior to his nomination. Although judgments of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico may be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, decisions of the United States Supreme Court have established that the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is the final authority on the meaning of a Puerto Rican law and that its decision interpreting such a law may not be reversed unless the interpretation is “inescapably wrong” and the decision “patently erroneous”; it is not sufficient to justify reversal that the Federal Court merely disagree with the Puerto Rican Supreme Court’s interpretation. There will continue to be a Federal District Court in Puerto Rico, but its jurisdiction [Page 1433]does not differ from the jurisdiction of Federal District Courts functioning within the boundaries of States.

Under the constitution, there is full and effective participation of the population of Puerto Rico in the government of Puerto Rico. Article II, section 1, provides that no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, sex, birth, social origin, or condition, or political or religious ideas and requires the laws to embody these principles. Puerto Rico is divided by the constitution into senatorial and representative districts for purposes of electing members of the Legislative Assembly, and provision is also made for election of senators and representatives elected at large. By a special procedure established by Article III of the constitution majority parties are precluded from filling a number of seats in the Legislative Assembly substantially disproportionate to their voting strength and minority parties are assured of representation in proportion to their island-wide voting strength. Elections will be held every four years.

Article II, section 2, requires that the laws shall guarantee the expression of the will of the people by means of equal, direct and secret universal suffrage and shall protect the citizen against any coercion in the exercise of the electoral franchise. Article VI, section 4, provides that every person over twenty-one years of age shall be entitled to vote if he fulfills the other conditions determined by law and prohibits depriving a person of the right to vote because he does not know how to read or write or does not own property.

The people of Puerto Rico continue to be citizens of the United States and the Constitution of the United States continues to be applicable to Puerto Rico to the same extent as prior to the establishment of the Commonwealth. Under the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act, there will still be free trade with the United States, only United States coins and currency will be legal tender in Puerto Rico and the statutory laws of the United States not locally inapplicable will have the same force and effect in Puerto Rico as in the United States, in the absence of a provision to the contrary. Puerto Rico will continue to be represented in the Congress by a Resident Commissioner whose powers are neither diminished nor increased by the establishment of the Commonwealth. The people of Puerto Rico will continue to be exempt from Federal income taxes on the income they derive from sources within Puerto Rico, and into their treasury, for appropriation and expenditure as their legislature may decide, will be deposited the proceeds of United States internal revenue taxes collected on articles produced in Puerto Rico and the proceeds of United States tariffs and customs collected on foreign merchandise entering Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has not become an independent nation; neither has it become a State of the Union. It remains a territory of the United States. The action of the Congress in authorizing and approving the [Page 1434]constitution of the Commonwealth was taken under the constitutional power of the Congress to make needful rules and regulations respecting the territory of the United States. Puerto Rico’s foreign relations, like those of the other territories and, it may be added, like those of the States, will continue to be conducted by the United States.

However, with respect to internal government and administration, Puerto Rico occupies a unique position among the territories. By requesting the Congress to authorize the drafting and adoption of a constitution, Puerto Rico has voluntarily entered into the relationship with the United States which it has chosen to describe as a “commonwealth” relationship. The term “commonwealth” was adopted by Puerto Rico as the official English designation of the body politic created by the constitution (the official Spanish title is “estado libre asociado”), to define the status of that body as “a state which is free of superior authority in the management of its own local affairs but which is linked to the United States of America and hence is a part of its political system in a manner compatible with its Federal structure”, and which “does not have an independent and separate existence” (Resolution No. 22 of the Constitutional Convention). By authorizing the drafting of the constitution and by approving the constitution, Congress has agreed that Puerto Rico shall have, under that constitution, freedom from control or interference by the Congress in respect of internal government and administration, subject only to compliance with applicable provisions of the Federal constitution, the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act and the acts of Congress authorizing and approving the constitution. Those laws which directed or authorized direct interference with matters of local government by the Federal Government have been repealed. This cannot be said of any other territory of the United States. With respect to no other territory has the Congress adopted an act in the nature of a compact authorizing the organization of a constitutional government by the people of the territory. In all other organized territories, the basic structure of the government is established by an act of the Congress, not by an act of the people of the territory. In all other organized territories, the chief executive is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, not popularly elected by the people of the territory. In all other organized territories, the executive officer immediately subordinate to the governor is appointed by the President, either alone or with the advice and consent of the Senate, but not by the governor of the territory. In all other organized territories, judges of the highest courts exercising local jurisdiction are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, not by the governor of the territory. The people of Puerto Rico will participate effectively in their government through universal, secret and equal suffrage, in free and periodic elections in which differing [Page 1435]political parties offer candidates, and which are assured freedom from undemocratic practices by the constitution itself. In these elections, there will be no interference by the United States. Puerto Rico has complete autonomy in its economic, cultural, and social affairs.

The final declaration of the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico (Resolution No. 23), expresses the views of the people of Puerto Rico as to the status they have now achieved:

“When this Constitution takes effect, the people of Puerto Rico shall thereupon be organized into a commonwealth established within the terms of the compact entered into by mutual consent, which is the basis of our union with the United States of America.

Thus we attain the goal of complete self-government, the last vestiges of colonialism having disappeared in the principle of Compact, and we enter into an era of new developments in democratic civilization.”

I request that you take whatever steps appear necessary, in connection with the international commitments of the United States, to give due recognition to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and to the full measure of self-government which has been achieved by the people of Puerto Rico.1

Sincerely yours,

Vernon D. Northrop
  1. This letter became the basis for extensive documentation submitted subsequently by the U.S. Government to the United Nations.