Juan R. Torruella, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit who was that court’s first Hispanic member and an advocate for U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, died on Monday, the court said. He was 87.
Torruella was a federal judge for more than four decades. He was first appointed to the district court in Puerto Rico by Gerald Ford in 1974 and then to the Boston-based appellate court in 1984. He was chief judge of the court from 1994-2001.
“Judge Torruella was a wise decision-maker, a brilliant scholar, and a passionate participant in the pursuit of justice,” the court’s current chief judge, Jeffrey R. Howard, said in a statement. “As a judge, his judicial legacy in the First Circuit and Puerto Rico will remain unsurpassed.”
Torruella was one of six active judges on the First Circuit, and his death creates the lone federal appeals vacancy at the moment for the White House to fill.
The Boston University law graduate has been involved in several appeals examining the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), passed by Congress in 2016 to manage his native island territory’s economic crisis brought on by more than $120 billion in debt.
He authored the Feb. 15, 2019, opinion Aurelius Inv., LLC v. Puerto Rico, finding that the appointment of the members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board—whose job is to oversee Puerto Rico’s financial rehabilitation—was unconstitutional.
That decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, at least temporarily quelling challenges to the bankruptcy-like proceedings the oversight board filed in 2017 for Puerto Rico and several of its agencies.
Rights for Puerto Rico
Torruella also was an outspoken advocate, both in and out of his courtroom, for the rights of American citizens residing in Puerto Rico—including him.
“The racism which caused the relegation of the Negro to a status of inferiority was to be applied to the overseas possessions of the United States” by a doctrine created by a string of caselaw known as the “Insular Cases,” Torruella said in a 2010 dissent in Igartúa v. United States.
Under the Insular Cases doctrine, only limited “fundamental” rights in the Constitution apply to unincorporated territories, like Puerto Rico, and its residents, even if they’re American citizens. Puerto Rico has a lone representative, or commissioner, in Congress who has restricted voting privileges.
This “political inequality” creates “a most unfortunate and denigrating predicament for citizens who for more than one hundred years have been branded with a stigma of inferiority, and all that follows therefrom,” Torruella said in his 2010 dissent in Igartúa.
“The Insular Cases should be soundly rejected because they represent the thinking of a morally bankrupt era in our history that goes against the most basic precept for which this nation stands: the equality before the law of all its citizens,” he said in an address at Harvard Law School in 2014.
Torruella survived by his wife, Judith, and their four children, the court said.