Puerto Rico Bar Association Under Attack for its Progressive and Independista politics

The Puerto Rico Bar Association, founded in 1840, is the oldest professional organization in Puerto Rico and the third oldest in the American hemisphere. It is a mandatory organization, similar to the majority of state bar associations in the U.S., such as California and Florida, where membership is required. In addition to providing services to attorneys and improving the legal profession, it is one of the foremost organizations of civil society in Puerto Rico, offering pro bono legal services to indigents and weighing in on issues important to society as a whole, such as opposing the use of the death penalty (outlawed by the Constitution of Puerto Rico) in the U.S. District Court; providing a mechanism for grievances against attorneys, personal support for attorneys, advocating to protect the independence of the judiciary; and supporting the rights of women.

Puerto Rican society is defined by the colonial relationship to the United States. The status question is a subject of daily discussion and debate among those who favor the status quo, or commonwealth; those who support statehood; and those who favor independence. Bar Association members are free to support any political party or status preference. For decades, however, the Bar Association has presented a legal analysis of the current status before the U.N. Special Commission on Decolonization, acknowledging the failure of the current status to comply with international law. Most recently, organizational commissions comprised of all tendencies have studied the issue and proposed a Constitutional Convention as the means for resolving the status.

Since November of 2008, when the pro statehood New Progressive Party [NPP] won the gubernatorial and many legislative and municipal elections, those favoring annexation began implementing drastic changes in Puerto Rican society. Not only did the new governor convene business leaders to come up with a plan to privatize many government services, he defunded many longstanding community organizations, announced the firing of 30,000 (mostly unionized) government workers, named an FBI agent as superintendent of police, and introduced legislation which would dismantle the Bar Association. More Historical Context — A bit of history may help to put in context these latest developments. For decades, the Bar Association has held elections at its annual convention, generally electing lawyers who support independence. The NPP made several bold efforts to win the presidency, but has never succeeded. The organization has long been a target of right-wing hostility– including bombings during the volatile decade between 1976 and 1986– because of the prominence of pro-independence members and postures. While independentistas were long criminalized by the government and reviled by adherents to the other status preferences, they have also tended to be Puerto Rico’s most respected attorneys and public spokespeople.

The FBI’s assassination of clandestine independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, on September 23, 2005 sparked the latest attempt to undermine this venerable institution, because its Board agreed to rent a space for his wake, as it had previously done with other political and cultural figures. Representatives of a broad spectrum of Puerto Ricans attended, from the current and past governors to the Catholic Archbishop to the most humble citizens. The country stood still for days, outraged by this extra judicial execution. Now, the most reactionary pro statehood forces conspire about how to bring down the institution.
March 2009 Legislation to Bring Down the PR Bar Association In March 2009, the Senate passed legislation that would convert the Bar Association into one of voluntary membership, threatening a bastion of civil society. The House has passed a bill that would eliminate the annual convention as the forum for voting. Mandatory associations of engineers, pharmacists and sixteen other professions observe that if lawyers can’t protect their professional associations, they won’t be able to either. Efforts to conduct a reasoned debate on the pending legislation have been frustrated, including when pro statehood legislators convened hearings in a room too small to accommodate the multiple witnesses scheduled to testify against the bill. The Bar Association’s campaign to defeat the bill is supported by the American Association of Jurists and much of civil society.

Jan Susler
April 10, 2009

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