Making the Case for Puerto Rico
First Circuit Judge Juan R. Torruella (LAW’57): how history left an unlevel playing field
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.
They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Juan R. Torruella is a first: a native of Puerto Rico, he is the first Hispanic judge to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which hears appeals from the United States District Courts for the districts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.
Torruella (LAW’57) earned a Bachelor of Science in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1954 and a Juris Doctor from BU’s School of Law. He later earned a Master of Laws from the University of Virginia School of Law, a Master of Public Administration from the University of Puerto Rico, and a Master of Studies in modern European history from Oxford University. A skilled sailor, Torruella has competed for Puerto Rico in four Olympic sailing events, in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976.
He is the author of two books, The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal (University of Puerto Rico Press, 1985) and Global Intrigues: The Era of the Spanish-American War and the Rise of the United States to World Power (University of Puerto Rico Press, 2007), as well as numerous law review articles, which argue that our current political and constitutional systems keep the people of Puerto Rico “in a subservient condition ad infinitum, with less rights than even aliens who reside in the United States.”
Like most people interviewed for Bostonia’s’s “Opening Doors” series, Torruella is deeply concerned with issues of equality, fairness, and social justice, but his criticism is aimed mainly at constitutional issues rather than personal instances of discrimination.
Bostonia: What led you to a career in law?
Torruella: My father, who had always been a role model, suggested that I go to law school, and I thought I would try it since his advice had always been positive and led me down the right path.
Was he also a lawyer?
He was actually a dentist, but he became a lawyer later, after I had been a lawyer for five or six years.
What was your experience at LAW like?
I remember that I arrived in October, and it was so rainy and dreary that I almost got on a plane and went back to Puerto Rico. But I soon became enthusiastic with law school. I think I was probably the youngest in the class, which had a large component of Korean War veterans. To tell you how different law school was then, I will just mention that there were only 3 women in our first-year class of around 350. I have to say we had some great professors. I remember taking my wife to Tom Lambert’s Saturday morning classes, he was so good.
Did you experience any discrimination at the time, either on campus or in finding a job after graduating?
I can’t really say that I was discriminated against as such. But at that time, it was very hard to get a job at a law firm in Boston—the legal scenario was controlled by the Brahmin elites, and I suspect BU was looked down upon by this class. You really had to have connections, like a relative who worked there, so the chances of getting a job were very small. I remember in one of the interviews, the only thing they asked me was whether I had a camera, so I could take pictures of accidents. Women, of course, were even worse off; they were usually offered secretarial jobs, if they were lucky enough to even get an interview.
So how did you get a job?
The week I was supposed to take the Massachusetts Bar I ended up getting the mumps, so I didn’t take it. Instead, I went back to Puerto Rico and I took the Puerto Rico Bar. Then I was hired as a law clerk in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, which was a great postgraduate course for me, as I was able to become familiar with Puerto Rico civil law—a branch of the Napoleonic Code. At the end of that period, I was hired by the National Labor Relations Board as a trial attorney, labor law being my best subject at BU. I did that for three years and as things go, I tried a major case against one of Puerto Rico’s principal newspapers and won the case. This resulted in a job offer by the law firm that was my opponent. I was there for eight years, became a partner, and then decided to go out on my own, which I must say were the best years of my private practice, economically and professionally.
Before long, my success caught up with me and I had a large firm surrounding me, which I had tried to avoid once already. Then I had a chance to go on the US District Court for Puerto Rico and took it. I was a district judge for 10 exciting years, and then a Court of Appeals opening came up, and here I am, 34 years later.
Along the way, did you ever sense any discrimination because of your heritage?
I can’t say that I have personally, although I have seen plenty of cases where this goes on. I think it goes on even more at the highest levels. But without question, I am discriminated against collectively. I think the fact that Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States for 117 years yet they have no national political representation is an unfortunate example of this collective discrimination. This collective discrimination was put in place by the Insular Cases [a series of 1901 US Supreme Court opinions about the status of US territories acquired in the Spanish-American War] by the same court that decided Plessy v. Ferguson [separate but equal], and unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to apply Brown v. Board of Education principles of equality to the Puerto Rico US citizens. I find it nothing short of ironic that here I am, sitting on the second highest court of the United States, deciding issues of national importance, yet not having any national political representation. I cannot vote for the president and vice president and have no voting representative in Congress simply because I am a resident of Puerto Rico. The bottom line is that US citizens who live in Puerto Rico have no political equality. It is incredible that in the 21st century, the United States, a nation that fought a war for independence to break its colonial chains, has today what amounts to a colonial empire.
Can you talk about any cases where you have seen discrimination that plays out at the personal and individual level?
There are many, but one that comes to my mind, because it is demonstrative of the absurdity with which Puerto Rico is treated, is a case where a woman from Puerto Rico was living in Connecticut and receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because she was incapacitated. When she moved back to Puerto Rico, the Social Security Administration cut her off. Pursuant to the SSI statute, she could only receive that income while she was living in one of the 50 states or the District of Columbia. The administration argued that they couldn’t give those benefits to Puerto Rican residents because it would unbalance the economy of Puerto Rico by putting too much money into its economy. I naturally found it incredible that they would make such an argument, but I found it even more incredible when it was appealed to the Supreme Court and that decision was affirmed, with the court adopting this rationale as part of a “rational” basis test.
Can you mention other examples of this type of discrimination?
Among the most flagrant examples of discrimination against the US citizens of Puerto Rico is how Puerto Rican residents are treated under the Medicare and Medicaid programs, in which they receive a fraction of [what] their Stateside brethren [receive]. I fail to see how in such basic human rights programs, the US citizens of Puerto Rico, who are the most vulnerable economically in the nation, can be treated less favorably than their mainland compatriots in the granting of these basic needs.
This discrimination is, of course, only possible because we don’t have effective political representation at a national level. Puerto Rico is kept in a state of political limbo, which is the principal cause of our present economic crisis, much of which can be attributed to Congress’ practically unfettered power over Puerto Rico’s citizens since 1898. Congress has made us economically incompetent, notwithstanding that Puerto Rico has been a fountain of wealth for US interests since day one.
There really must be a balance, one that can only be achieved by our having political equality, and right now there is none. What we need and ask for, is equality as US citizens. I believe that is what we have a right to have under the Constitution.
Lest you forget, Puerto Rico was the second US jurisdiction per capita of casualties in the Korean War and 14th in the Vietnam War. The US citizens of Puerto Rico have more than earned the right to place a 51st star on our national flag.
Do you know BU alumni, faculty, and staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers themselves? Email Cindy Buccini at email@example.com and recommend them for our series “Opening Doors.”
October 25, 2022
Opening Doors: Jenn Lindsay (GRS’18), Founder of So Fare Films
October 4, 2022
Opening Doors: Trevor Rozier-Byrd (LAW’10)
June 7, 2022
Opening Doors: David Waters (GRS’89)
A very fine example of Leadership from an unusual locale. I look forward to more insights that shine attention on a fresh generation of activists like A.O.C.. She and a few others can only continue to grow with tempered guidance from this Caliber of perspective,
The timely New Green Approach, applied to the aspirations .of a people that are reluctant to be ignored within our melting pot ( the USA ) would also do better by viewing the environment with the Vision of perhaps, Eugenio Maria de Hostos.
Felicitaciones a el Hon.Juez Torruellas por tan magnífico artículo.