Proposed Court System For Puerto Rico Research Paper
As one of the arms of the government, the main role of the judiciary is to preserve the rule of law. A properly functioning judiciary is an exhibition of democracy (Carp, 2013). The judiciary ensures that people who violate the laws of the land and who are a danger and a nuisance to the rest of the society are put away. It also acts as an arbitrator and mediator for various civil disputes among the society members. By performing all these functions, the judiciary is essentially able to preserve the rule of law in the land (Burnham, 2002). Although there is a federal judicial system in the nation, each of the currently existing 50 states has its own judiciary. The principal element of the judiciary is the court and consequently, each state in the nation has its own court system or structure. These court systems and structures differ from one state to the other although there are conspicuous similarities in some of the court structures in some states. In fact, some court structures in certain states have been derived or adapted from the court structures of another state with only minor adjustments being done. In spite of these differences, the main purpose of the judiciary in all these states is to preserve the rule of law. Being a newly created state, the judicial system in Puerto Rico is not yet explicitly defined. The state is yet to implement a fully functioning court structure that will handle criminal and civil cases. This paper aims to propose a sample court structure for the newly created state of Puerto Rico. The paper will elaborate on the components of this court structure together with the selection process of the main stakeholders who are the judges and magistrates. The proposed structure will borrow heavily from existing the court structure in other states, specifically the states of Georgia. Louisiana and Kentucky.
Puerto Rico is an island that is located in the Caribbean Sea, south-western of the United States mainland. The approximate population of Puerto Rico is about 3.65 million. For every square mile, there are about 1000 people, a ratio that is actually one of the highest in the nation. In terms of size, Puerto Rico has an approximate area of 9,104 square kilometers. The state has about 78 municipalities which principally function as counties. These municipalities are further sub-divided into smaller sections know as barrios. A mayor governs each of the municipalities. As a state, Puerto Rico is rife with diverse culture and various tourists’ attractions. These are just of the few basic features and characteristics of the new state of Puerto of Puerto Rico that have been considered in formulating this proposed court system. Simply put, Puerto Rico is a state endowed with great beauty and massive potential not to mention the relatively dense population. With all these factors in mind, the state must have a well-structured judicial system with a distinctive court structure with clearly defines roles, duties, and jurisdictions. The proposed court structure will be modeled in the court systems of Louisiana, Georgia, and Kentucky.
At the bottom of the court system will the Justice of the Peace Courts that will be modeled in the format of those in the state of Louisiana. There will be a total of 80 of these courts evenly distributed throughout the state’s 78 municipalities. The courts will act as the initial court entry level of the state residents. The jurisdiction of these courts shall be limited to a specific number of civil cases including those of contracts, torts, small claims (up to $2000) and real property rights (up to $4000). These courts will also handle particular types of criminal cases specifically those that are non- felony in nature, for example, traffic violations. These courts will however not hear cases such divorce suits, real estate suits, executory proceedings and so on (American Judicature Society, Louisiana Court system, 2014).The courts will also have limited power to issue search and arrest warrants and, in fact, these courts will only be allowed to issue these warrants as a last option.
These courts will be extremely useful and will provide a much needed judicial service to Puerto Rico citizens especially those who live in rural areas and who may perhaps not have the ability to travel to towns and urban centers, for example to place suits or make claims in bigger courts. The mayor of a municipals in association with the municipal council will appoint the magistrate to administer in Justice of the Peace Court located in a given municipality.
The next element of the Judicial Court System will be the municipal courts. These courts will have more jurisdiction that the Justice of the Peace Courts. In fact, the courts will have the legal authority to preside over the legal matters that cannot be adjudicated by the lower Justice of the Peace Courts. It is proposed that a total of 45 municipal courts are established in the state of Puerto Rico.
The Louisiana Court System offers an exemplary format of municipal courts as well as their jurisdictions. This system will thus be used to structure the Puerto Rican municipal courts.
First of all, the municipal courts will have the legal authority to preside over civil cases where the dispute in question does not exceed $15, 000. However, these courts will not hear jury trials. The municipal courts will preside over cases that involve city ordinances violations, as well as violations of some of the state laws. Depending on the municipality in question, the municipal courts will also have the mandate to hear cases involving minor criminal offenses, as well as traffic matters. Some of the common case that will be heard by the municipal courts include juvenile issues including truancy, drug offenses, underage drinking, and violation of curfews and so on. The municipal courts are expected to handle a considerable amount of the total court case workload of the state of Puerto Rico.
There are several cases that the municipal courts will not hear. These include; divorce and marriage, title cases for immovable property, right to office, political/civil rights to assume a government/public office, habeas corpus, proceedings that involve curatorship, tutorship and emancipation, and finally cases where the municipal or the state is the defendant (American Judicature Society, Louisiana Court system, 2014).
Each municipal court will be administered by a judge. The judges will be chosen via non-partisan election and once chosen, they will serve for a period of six years. However, in case of an expected vacancy such as death or resignation, a replacement will be appointed from the current sitting municipal court judges from another state. This judge will serve for the remainder of the former judge’s tenure, but he or she will have to contest for the seat in the upcoming non-partisan election.
The municipal courts will be under the authority of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court and the choice made by the governor in the case of a vacancy will come from a list of recommended persons forwarded to him by the Puerto Rico Judicial Nomination Commission.
The municipal courts will on a general scale be expected to administer justice in a manner that is efficient, fair and timely. They will be tasked with safeguarding the liberties and legal rights of the citizens of Puerto Rico and ensuring that the public interests are protected.
The staff in the municipal courts will be appointed by a committee made of current and former judges, court clerks and prosecutors who will oversee the appropriate filling of all municipal court positions.
The next element of the proposed court system of Florida will be the circuit courts. These will function as the main trial courts in the state. There will be a total of 50 circuit courts in the state with each court representing about three to four barrios. A total of 80 circuit court judges will oversee matters in these courts.
The Puerto Rican circuit courts will have jurisdiction in quite a variety of cases. These will include capital offenses, land disputes, felonies, general civil litigation (in disputes involving more than $4500) and contested probates of wills.
These courts will also hear cases related to prohibition, habeas corpus, mandamus, and revenue and will also hear appeals from administrative agencies and the Justice of the Peace courts.
The circuit court will have a family division. This will be known as the family court and will deal with matters related to family. As part of the state’s circuit courts, the family court will retain principal jurisdiction when it comes to cases dealing with divorce, marriage, custody, adoption, parental rights termination and other family related issues.
In addition, these courts will also enjoy jurisdiction to criminal family offenses such as domestic abuse and violence. The family court will also hear children cases such as those related to neglect, dependency and even abuse (American Judicature Society: Kentucky Court system, 2014).
The judges who will serve in the circuit courts will be selected via non-partisan elections. Each of the judges will serve for a tenure of 8 years after which they may choose to run for re-election. In the case of an expected vacancy such as the one caused by the death or the resignation of the incumbent, a replacement will be selected by the state governor. The Puerto Rico Judicial Nomination Commission will compile a list of potential candidates from which he governor will make his selection. Just like in the municipal courts, the selected party will serve for the remainder of the former judge’s tenure and will have to participate in the next non-partisan election.
The circuit courts will be headed by chief circuit court judge who will elected by fellow circuit court judges. This chief judge will have administrative authority over all the circuit courts in the state. One of his powers will be to assign different cases to specialized or general divisions of the state’s circuit court system. The chief circuit court judge will also serve a tenure of 8 years.
The state of Puerto Rico will also have district courts. Just like the municipal courts, these courts will have a relatively limited jurisdiction. The district courts will hear cases and matters such as juvenile delinquency, county and city ordinance violation, misdemeanors, traffic offenses, preliminary felony hearings, civil cases as well as claims involving disputes below $4000. The courts will also alongside the family courts handles cases related to domestic violence. There will be a total of 50 district courts in the state of Puerto Rico. These courts will be served by a total of 110 judges. The district courts will be distributed across the different municipalities that make up the state.
The judges who will serve the district courts will be chosen in a non-partisan election. These judges will serve for a term of six years. In the case of a vacancy, the Puerto Rico Judicial Nomination Commission will nominate several candidates from which the state governor will choose the appropriate replacement.
The district court will have some similar characteristics with the municipal courts although the former will have a wider jurisdiction.
The Puerto Court of Appeal is the other Court that will be instituted into the state’s judicial system. This court will act as the intermediate appellate court in the state. This court will primarily handle appeals related to criminal court cases. The court will handle appeals from all the courts below it including the municipal courts, the district courts, the Justice of the Peace courts and the circuit courts.
The Puerto Court of Appeal will be served by a total of 14 justices. These justices will serve tenures of 8 years. The Court of Appeal will normally have three judge panels. The membership of these panels will rotate constantly to ensure that at least all the 14 judges share a panel with each other every year. This will make the administration of justice even more impartial.
The Court of Appeal will have a chief judge who will have administrative authority over this court. This judge will be selected by the 14 appellate court judges. The selected Chief Judge will serve a tenure of four years. As mentioned, the Chief appellate judge will have administrative duties over this court and one of his functions will be to assign judges as well as cases to panels.
Since the Court of Appeals is a very sensitive court. It must be ensured that individuals selected to serve have met all the required qualification and have the ability to administer justice impartially. The Puerto Rico Judicial Nomination Commission will make a screening of all the potential candidates who can sufficiently fill up the Court of Appeals positions. The potential candidates will then be vetted, and the most appropriate candidates will be shortlisted.
The same procedure will be followed when a vacancy arises within the court. The judicial nomination commission will select potential candidates, but, in this case, the governor will be charged with the role of making a selection from the candidates. The judges who have been selected as a replacement will serve for a period of one year. After that, the judge will participate in a retention election that will be held in the following general election in the state.
Judges serving in this court must be over 65 years old and must have been admitted to practice law in the state of Puerto Rico for not less than ten years.
The highest court in the new State of Puerto Rico will be the Supreme Court. This court will be modeled from the current Supreme Court of Georgia (American Judicature Society: Georgia, Court System, 2014) which is one of the most efficient Supreme Courts in the nation.
The Supreme Court will act as the last resort court in the state of Puerto Rico. The court will also enjoy exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving election contests as well as constitutional contests. In addition, the Supreme Court will also have appellate jurisdiction on matters related to land title, equity and will cases, death penalty cases, certified cases, alimony and divorce cases as well as habeas corpus. Additionally, the court will have legal authority to exercise jurisdiction over cases at the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals if the cases in question are construed to be of huge public importance.
The Supreme Court will be served by a total of seven judges. These judges will be selected through non-partisan elections. The judges in the Supreme Court will have a tenure of 6 years after which they can either chose to seek re-election or retire altogether. In the case of a vacancy, the state judicial nomination commission will be tasked with the role of compiling a list of sufficient candidates who can successfully fill up the position. The governor will then chose an interim chief justice who will then serve for the remainder of the tenure. The nomination commission will be expected to forward a list comprising of not less than five names from which the governor can make his or her choice. However, the governor may ultimately choose not to appoint a candidate from the list given by the nominating commission. All the justices serving in the Supreme Court must be over 70 years and, must have been licensed to practice law in the state of Puerto Rico for over ten years. The removal of Supreme Court judges can only be done through the state’s Senate.
The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico will be headed by a Chief Justice. This Chief Justice will be selected from the seven justices. The Chief Justice will only serve for one term of 6 years after which a new justice will be chosen from the sitting justices.
As mentioned, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico will be the court of last resort in the state and any decision made in the court is final and cannot be appealed at any other court in the state of Puerto Rico.
In addition to this proposed court system and structure, it is proposed that a code of conduct be drafted with immediate effect. Members of the court system in Puerto Rico will be required to take an oath to abide by this code and violation of any of the elements articulated in the code will lead to immediate termination of duty and subsequent prosecution in a court of law. The Code of Conduct essentially refers a set of ethical guidelines and principles that all members of the judicial system are required to follow. This code will provide guidance for all court personnel on issues related to judicial integrity, diligence, and impartiality.
Members of the courtroom will be required to ascribe to the highest standard of dignity and professionalism. Judges will not be allowed to oversee cases where they have personal interests or have personal relationships with the stakeholders in the given case.
The people of Puerto Rico will hold the state attorneys and judges to a very higher standard and consequently, these court personnel are expected to understand the needs of the people and serve them efficiently and to the best of their ability.
The court system that has been proposed above promises to be very effective if properly implemented. The system promises to facilitate impartial administration of justice in this newly formed state. Each court has a strictly defined jurisdiction, staff selection process and specifically defined roles and responsibilities. Simply put, this court system and the accompanying judicial process with serve as a symbol democracy in the state of Puerto Rico.
American Judicature Society. (2014, January 1). State of Georgia. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from http://www.judicialselection.us/judicial_selection/methods/justices_of_the_supreme_court.cfm?state=GA
American Judicature Society. (2014, January 1). State of Louisiana. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from http://www.judicialselection.us/judicial_selection/methods/justices_of_the_supreme_court.cfm?state=LA
American Judicature Society. (2014, January 1). State of Kentucky. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from http://www.judicialselection.us/judicial_selection/methods/justices_of_the_supreme_court.cfm?state=KY
Burnham, W. (2002). Introduction to the law and legal system of the United States. United States: West Group.
Carp, R. A., Stidham, R., & Manning, K. L. (2013). Judicial process in America. SAGE.
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