Puerto Rico sovereignty takes blow at US Supreme Court

Puerto Rico has several times failed to make payments towards its $70 billion debt, including a $2 billion instalment in July (AFP Photo/PAUL J. RICHARDS) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - The US Supreme Court ruled against Puerto Rico Thursday in a battle over sovereignty, saying that in criminal prosecutions US jurisdiction takes precedence over that of Puerto Rico.

The broader issue of autonomy in the self-governing territory that has its own constitution was reflected in a criminal prosecution for firearms sales. Puerto Rican prosecutors argued they should be able to try two men who had already pleaded guilty in US federal court.

Defendants Luis Sanchez Valle and Jaime Gomez Vazquez pleaded guilty to illegally selling firearms, after each sold a gun to an undercover police officer.

Both men later moved to dismiss pending Puerto Rican charges against them. They said the charges were in violation of the US Constitution's double jeopardy clause, under which no defendant can be tried twice for the same alleged offense.

Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said "the 'ultimate' source of prosecutorial power remains the US Congress."

"Put simply, Congress conferred the authority to create the Puerto Rico Constitution, which in turn confers the authority to bring criminal charges," she wrote.

"That makes Congress the original source of power for Puerto Rico's prosecutors -- as it is for the federal government's. The island's Constitution, significant though it is, does not break the chain."

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, and was joined by Sonia Sotomayor, saying that "the 'source' of Puerto Rico's criminal law ceased to be the US Congress and became Puerto Rico itself, its people and its constitution."

Debate over the Caribbean island's sovereignty has recently been overshadowed by a debt crisis that has engulfed the US territory, underscoring its complicated relationship with the mainland.

Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but do not have lawmakers in the US Congress.