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The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and its Government Structure

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The following is a guest post by Jesús Colón Rosado, an intern working in the Public Services Division at the Law Library of Congress.

The Spanish-American War and Its Aftermath in Puerto Rico

On July 25, 1898, American forces invaded Puerto Rico in the midst of the Spanish-American War. The Treaty of Paris marked the end of the war, when it was signed by the United States and Spain on December 10, 1898. Through this treaty, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. The treaty provided, “The civil rights and political status of the natural inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by Congress.”

A color painting of three U.S. warships on the ocean attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 12 1898. Head-and-shoulders portrait of Rear Admiral Sampson in left lower corner.
Bombardment of San Juan, Porto Rico [i.e. Puerto Rico] (c1898). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //
On April 2, 1900, President McKinley signed the Foraker Act (ch. 101, 31 Stat. 77) into law, establishing a civilian government in Puerto Rico. The new government had a governor and executive council appointed by the U.S. president, a legislature with 35 elected members, a judicial system with a high court, and a non-voting resident commissioner in Congress.

Under President Woodrow Wilson, the Jones-Shafroth Act (ch. 148, 39 Stat. 951) was enacted on March 2, 1917. This law granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, and separated the territory’s executive, judicial, and legislative offices into distinct government branches. This law granted civil rights to Puerto Ricans and created a locally-elected bicameral legislature, composed of the Senate and House of Representatives. Although the Jones Act created a republican structure of government, the law granted the governor and U.S. president the right to veto any legislation passed by the legislature, and the U.S. retained the power to stop any action taken by Puerto Rico’s legislature.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

In 1950, Congress enacted the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act (ch. 446, 64 Stat. 319). The law authorized Puerto Rico to adopt a constitution defining its internal governance structure. Puerto Rico held a constitutional convention (article in Spanish) from September 17, 1951, to February 5, 1952, which produced a constitution. By popular vote, a majority of the Puerto Ricans adopted this constitution on March 3, 1952. On July 3, 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution (ch. 567, 66 Stat. 327) approving the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter, Governor Luis Muñoz Marín issued Administrative Bulletin 188, putting the constitution into effect.

An interior photo of a government building in San Juan Puerto Rico, with marble columns in the background. In the foreground is a round glass case with individual pages from the original Puerto Rico constitution.
Constitution in the Round, Photo by Flickruser Jerry Bowley (July 13, 2016). Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Like the U.S. states, Puerto Rico has a government system analogous to the U.S. federal government, with three independent, co-equal branches. Additionally, U.S. federal agencies, military bases, and a federal district court operate in Puerto Rico.

Executive Power

Puerto Rico’s constitution states that the territory’s executive power will be held by the governor of Puerto Rico, elected every four years by direct popular vote. There is no limit to the number of times a governor can be elected. Similar to the federal system, the governor has a constitutional cabinet, with secretaries who are appointed by the governor and confirmed with the advice and consent of the Puerto Rican (P.R.) Senate. One exception exists for the P.R. secretary of state, who must receive approval from the P.R. House of Representatives. Each administrative agency is empowered to create regulations through powers delegated by the P.R. legislature.

Unlike many U.S. states, Puerto Rico does not have a lieutenant governor. When the governor is temporarily unable to perform his or her functions, the secretary of state will serve as governor during the period of unavailability. If for any reason the secretary of state is unavailable, a secretary from the cabinet, as determined by law addressing succession, shall serve as an interim governor.

The governor’s powers include the authority to issue executive orders, grant pardons, and suspend or commute sentences in criminal cases. Unique to Puerto Rico, the governor may, when approving any appropriations bill containing multiple items, eliminate one or more line items or reduce their allotted appropriations.

Legislative Branch

The legislative branch comprises two bodies: the P.R. House of Representatives and the P.R. Senate. Puerto Ricans elect members every four years during the same election as the governor.

A color image of the Puerto Rico Capitol, with palm trees in the foreground.
El Capitolio de Puerto Rico, Photo by Flickruser Wayne Hsieh (July 13, 2016). Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The House is composed of 51 representatives, while the Senate has 27 members. The P.R. constitution has a mechanism for increasing the number of legislators under certain circumstances. For example, article III, section 7 provides that if, during a general election, more than two-thirds of the members of either chamber represent a single party or candidacy, the number of legislators can be increased to prevent a super-majority in the P.R. House or Senate. As with the governor, legislators are not subject to term limits.

Puerto Rico is organized into 40 representative districts and eight senatorial districts. Each representative district chooses one member, and each senatorial district chooses two senators. The P.R. constitution also contemplates the election of eleven members in both houses, known as representatives and senators at large.

Akin to the U.S. Congress, each legislative body adopts the rules for its operation and internal government. Under article III, section 14 of the P.R. constitution, members of the legislative assembly enjoy parliamentary immunity for their votes and expressions made in chambers or during any of its commissions. Additionally, the P.R. constitution specifies that members may not be “arrested while the house of which he is a member is in session, or during the fifteen days before or after such session, except for treason, felony or breach of the peace.”

The legislative assembly has exclusive power to impeach the governor of Puerto Rico. The P.R. House of Representatives initiates the process by formulating an accusation approved by a minimum of two-thirds of its members. The P.R. Senate then is responsible for holding a trial and issuing a judgment.

Judicial Branch

The judicial power of Puerto Rico is exercised by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, as well as the lower courts created by the legislative assembly. According to the P.R. constitution, the legislative assembly may create and abolish courts, except for the supreme court, as well as determine the venue and organization of the lower courts. The system is a three-tiered hierarchy, with the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and Court of First Instance. Puerto Rico’s judiciary is one of general jurisdiction.

The governor appoints judges at all court levels, with the advice and consent of the senate. Although supreme court judges have no term limits, they must retire when they turn 70. Otherwise, they can only be removed from office through the impeachment process established in the P.R. constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to review Puerto Rican court cases in the same manner that it reviews decisions of U.S. state courts.

Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s government structure, you can consult these additional selected sources:

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  1. Congrats on a great post!

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