Legal Scholars Pay Tribute to Territorial Rights Advocate Juan Torruella

Judge Juan Torruella

A group of legal scholars recently gathered in cyberspace to honor the contributions of the late Appeals Court Judge Juan Torruella, best known for his writings about the Insular Cases.

The Insular Cases are a set of laws adopted in 1901 that govern some U.S. territories. As a native son of one territory – the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico – Torruella wrote essays critical of the impact those laws have on the rights of four to five million U.S. citizens living in those territories.

At the time of his passing, on Oct. 26, Torruella had spent 16 years serving on the U.S. Appeals Court for the 1st Circuit. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan while still the chief district judge for Puerto Rico’s federal court. He held the position of chief circuit judge for the 1st Circuit from 1994 to 2001.

When his death was announced on U.S. network news, Torruella was described as, “known for his seminal writings on Puerto Rico’s territorial status – which he said was ‘colonial’ – but deemed legal by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, a personal friend of Torruella, joined a panel of scholars in a virtual event hosted by the Yale Law Review. James Campbell of the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands served as the moderator.

Breyer’s reflections captured a glimpse of the judge in and out of the courtroom as a world-class sailor, a painter and a historian. Breyer’s remarks preceded words from Adriel Cepeda Derieux, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.

Columbia University legal history professor Christina Ponsa-Karus shared the virtual podium at the tribute event held on Nov. 16. Cornell Law School professor Aziz Rana and Neil Weare, president of an advocacy group promoting the repeal of the Insular Cases, also attended.

The group, Equally American, is described as a public interest law group advocating for the right of territorial citizens to vote for the U.S. president and have congressional representatives with votes in the bodies where they serve.

As part of the remembrance, officials at the law journal announced the dedication of an essay collection on the Insular Cases in Torruella’s name.

In his tribute, Breyer noted that Torruella took a year away from the bench to attend Oxford University to study the Insular Cases and write a thesis about them.

The justice also praised organizers and participants in the tribute forum. He called the essays featured in the forum “learned, scholarly writings.”

A number of essays focused on one case, involving the appointment of a financial control board to administer government spending in Puerto Rico. An electrical workers union challenged the Financial Oversight and Management Board’s authority to control finances in the commonwealth as violating the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

When the case – Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico v. Aurelius Investment, LLC – made it to the Supreme Court, the discussion focused on whether the Appointments Clause was limited by the Insular Cases’ view of what rights apply in a U.S. territory.

Many of the writers also questioned why the Supreme Court sought to limit how the Insular Case law is applied in the territories but didn’t seek to strike the law down. Critics like Torruella called the laws demeaning to the territories’ citizens – many of them people of color – and a statute used to limit their participation as full U.S. citizens.

One of his notable writings is titled “The Insular Cases: The Establishment of Political Apartheid.” At the tribute, Cepeda Derieux illustrated the point with a reference to the honoree.

“Here he was, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge who could not vote in federal elections,” she said.

Rana, another writer featured on the panel, questioned how the Insular Cases affect the way the Constitution is applied in territories in modern America. But, she said, discussions like that rarely make their way into law school classrooms.

“It’s really easy to go through three years of law school and never be introduced to the Insular Cases. I think this is a fundamentally false way of looking at U.S. constitutional development,” she said.

Weare added his praise for Torruella’s lifetime of work on the subject, calling him “a giant in the law and an inspiration to all who care about constitutional rights in the U.S. territories.”