Federal Courts in Puerto Rico
By: Ira Cohen, Esq., Partner, Henkel & Cohen, P.A., Miami
First publication in SideBAR, the Newsletter of the Federal Bar Association’s Federal Litigation Section.
This year’s Federal Bar Association Annual Meeting is scheduled to take place in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 26-28, 2013. It would, therefore, appear to be appropriate for us to familiarize ourselves with at least a rudimentary knowledge of the unique background and rich judicial history of the Federal District Courts in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico (U.S.D.C., D.P.R.) was established on September 12, 1966. In the Spanish language, it is referred to as the Tribunal del Distrito de Puerto Rico, but the official language is, and all court proceedings are, conducted in English. The Court’s official website address is www.prd.uscourts.gov
As to this federal court, the jurisdiction of which comprises the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, appeals from this trial level court are to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Albeit the main Courthouse for that appellate court is situated in Boston, Massachusetts, the court hears appeals during a pair of sessions held each year at the Old San Juan courthouse.
The Puerto Rico District Court’s home base is in San Juan. The Clemente Ruiz-Nazario U.S. Courthouse is located in the Hato Rey section of the city. The address for this courthouse is 150 Carlos Chardon Avenue, Hato Rey, P.R. 00918, (787) 281-4898. Parenthetically, it should be noted that the United States Magistrate Judges for this District hold court in the adjacent Federico Degetau Federal Building. The present panel of Magistrates includes Hon. Marcos E. Lopez, Hon. Bruce J. McGiverin, and Hon. Camille Velez-Rive. That building likewise sits at 150 Carlos Chardon Avenue, Hato Rey, P.R. 00918, Tel. (787) 281-4898. The phone number for the Clerk’s Office is (787) 772-3000. In addition, a number of Senior District Judges are chambered at the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan. The address of the old courthouse is 300 Recinto Sur Street, San Juan, P.R. 00901, Tel. (787) 729-6602.
The Clerk of the Court is Frances Rios de Moran, Esq. The Clerk’s Office telephone number is (787) 977-6138.
Apart from San Juan, since 1900, there have been two (2) other authorized places in which to hold Court in this District. The first is in the city of Mayaguez, located at Miguel Angel Garcia Mendez Post Office Bldg, McKinley and Pilar DeFillo Streets, Mayaguez, P.R. The second is in the city of Ponce, located at Luis A. Fere U.S. Courthouse & Post Office Building, Atocha and Guadalupe Streets, Ponce, P.R.
In 1898, following the Spanish-American War, sovereignty over Puerto Rico shifted from Spain to the United States of America. The military commanders appointed a Judge, Noah Pettingill, to preside over the Provisional Court in 1899.
A year later, pursuant to the Foraker Act, in 1900, with Judge William Holt at the helm, the United States government established a federal court in Puerto Rico. The court so created was, however, a Territorial Court. As such, the court was established under Article I, rather than Article III, of the United States Constitution.
According to the Court’s official website, many of those early judges, apart from their integrity, high character, and distinguished legal pedigrees, had stellar accomplishments in their careers. To illustrate, both Judge Roberts and Judge Chavez later became Supreme Court Justices in their home states. Moreover, Judge Cooper had previously been the Governor of South Carolina. Judge Rodey, in his time, founded the University of New Mexico.
During those early days, inasmuch as the federal court in Puerto Rico was a Territorial Court, as opposed to a full-fledged District Court, the pioneering judges quite obviously did not enjoy Article III protections, such as life tenure. Rather, the early 20th century federal jurists in Puerto Rico were appointed by the President of the United States to serve for terms of only four (4) years. This was the state of affairs all the way up through 1938. Subsequently, and until 1996, the judicial terms were, however, doubled to a period of eight (8) years.
From 1900 through 1961, only one (1) federal judge at a time sat on the bench in this District. Over the decades, of course, more seats on the federal bench in Puerto Rico have been established.
As mentioned above, the very first federal judge to serve in Puerto Rico was Hon. William H. Holt (1900-1904). He was followed by a succession of non-hispanic judges, until Hon. David Chavez ascended the bench in 1947-1950. Furthermore, as a matter of objective fact, the first dozen jurists to grace the Bench of this District all hailed from the Continental United Sates.
The main Courthouse is named after Hon. Clemente Ruiz-Nazario, who presided for two terms, from 1952-1966. Ruiz-Nazario, who also was the first Puerto Rican to sit on this bench, was appointed by President Harry Truman in 1952. Subsequently, all U.S. District Judges from Puerto Rico have been native-born Puerto Ricans.
Until as late as the 1950s, sitting judges of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico also were on the Federal bench, at least from time to time. They were designated to act in the capacity of judges of the federal court. In that manner, they could “pinch hit” in situations where there was a vacancy on the federal bench, while the sitting judge was away, or in cases of severe court-docket congestion.
On September 12, 1966, the federal judgeships were changed to life-tenure positions and the court itself was elevated to a level plane status vis-à-vis other United States District Courts. The first Article III Judge in Puerto Rico was Judge Hiram Cancio (albeit he had originally been appointed as an Article I Judge.)
Press of Business.
Case filings, in this District, according to the government’s own statistics, actually have decreased over the last several years. For example, back in 2006, there were 1,851 new filings, but by 2010, that number had dwindled down to 1,820. A similar trend may be observed in terms of total cases pending. In 2006, the District boasted a total of 3,938 cases; by 2010, however, that number had shrunken to 3,531.
As of 2010, the Court’s median disposition time for criminal cases was 13.1 months, with a slighter shorter period of 11.3 months for civil cases. Notably, civil cases of a 3 year old, or greater, vintage case only represented 3.2% of the Court’s caseload as of 2010.
Practicing before this Court.
In order to practice before the Bar of this Court, one must take and pass a separate Bar Examination. The test consists of fifty (50) multiple choice questions, in eight (8) subject areas, including federal civil procedure, federal criminal procedure, evidence, the local rules, appellate procedure, bankruptcy and, last but not least, ethics.
For those federal practitioners interested in becoming a Member of the Bar of this Court, the next examination is scheduled for Saturday, April 13, 2013, and the rapidly impending application deadline therefor is April 3, 2013.
Official Court Records.
For research purposes, or academic projects, the official court records of the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Puerto Rico, for the years 1897-1967, are included among Record Group 21, and warehoused in New York City, at the following location:
201 Varick Street
New York, NY 10014-4811
Note: A guide to the holdings is available at:
Current Complement of Jurists.
At the present time, there are seven (7) judgeships authorized by Congress for this District. Counting one (1) vacancy, there are six (6) active judges and four (4) senior judges. Despite the vacancy, there is no pending judicial appointment as of the time of this writing. The current Chief Judge is Hon. Aida M. Delgado-Colon (2011-present).
PUERTO RICO RULES OF COURT- (including the local Federal Court Rules):
Vol. I - Rules of the Federal Courts with Puerto Rican jurisdiction, utilizing English, the official language of the federal courts in Puerto Rico.
Vol. II - Rules of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, written in Spanish. (Published by Thomson West, 2013 ed.)
For Further Reading.
Baralt, Guillermo A., HISTORY OF THE FEDERAL COURT IN PUERTO RICO: 1899-1999 (Hato Rey, PR: Publicaciones Puertorriquenas, 2004).
- In cases of patent claims and claims against the U.S. government, pursuant to the Tucker Act, appeals are to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
- The old courthouse additionally serves as home to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The website for the Bankruptcy Court is www.prd.uscourts.gov The Bankruptcy Court Judges are as follows: Hon. Enrique S. Lamoutte, Chief Judge, Hon. Brian K. Tester, Hon. Mildred Caban, and Hon. Edward A. Godoy. The Clerk of the Bankruptcy Court is Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez.
- See 31 Stat. 77.
- See Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922).
- See 52 Stat. 118.
- Although a second judgeship was authorized in 1961 (75 Stat. 80), Congress did not actually fill the vacancy until 1965. In 1970, yet a third judgeship was authorized. (June 2, 1970, 84 Stat. 294) Later, in 1978, the total number of authorized judgeships for this District was increased to its present compliment of seven (7). (October 20, 1978, 92 Stat. 1629).
- The Article I judges who served in the District of Puerto Rico were as follows: Hon. William H. Holt (1990 – 1904); Hon. Charles F. McKenna (1904 – 1906); Hon. Bernard S. Rodey (1906 – 1910); Hon. John J. Jenkins (1910 – 1911); Hon. Paul Charlton (1911 – 1913); Hon. Peter J. Hamilton (1913 – 1021); Hon. Arthur F. Odin (1921 – 1925); Hon. Ira K. Wells (1925 – 1933); Hon. Robert A. Cooper (1933 – 1947); Hon. David Chavez (1947 – 1950); Hon. Thomas H. Roberts (1950 – 1952); Hon. Clemente Ruiz-Nazario (1952 – 1966); and Hon. Hiram Rafael Cancio (1965 – 1966).
- See 80 Stat. 764.
- The current roster of federal district judges in Puerto Rico is as follows: Chief Judge, Hon. Aida Delgado Colon (2006 – Present); District Judge, Hon. Carmen Consuelo Cerezo (1980 – Present); Hon. Jose A. Fuste (1985 – Present); Hon. Jay A. Garcia-Gregory (2000 – Present); Hon. Gustavo Antonio Gelpi, Jr. (2006 – Present); Hon. Francisco Besosa (2006 – Present); Hon. Juan Manuel Perez-Gimenez (Active 1979 – 2006; Senior DJ 2006 – Present); Hon. Raymond L. Acosta (Active 1982 – 1994; Senior DJ 1994 - Present); Hon. Salvador E. Casellas (Active 1995 – 2005; Senior DJ 2005 – Present); Hon. Daniel R. Dominguez (Active 1994 – 2011; Senior DJ 2011 – Present).
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