Researching the Laws of Puerto Rico
By Eduardo Colón Semidey
Eduardo Colón Semidey holds a JD from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law, a homologated law degree by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports of Spain, and a MIS from the University of Puerto Rico. Prior to serving as a reference librarian at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School (Fall 2019 through Spring 2020), Eduardo was adjunct lecturer at Florida International University College of Law and assistant librarian in several libraries in Puerto Rico. Currently, he continues to contribute to the Global Online Access to Legal Information (GOALI) effort, a public–private partnership of the International Labor Organization (ILO), Brill Nijhoff, the International Training Centre of the ILO, the Cornell Law School Library, and the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale Law School.
Published January/February 2022
Table of Contents
- 1. General Information
- 2. The Legal System
- 3. Primary Sources of Law
- 4. Legal Journals
- 5. Electronic Resources
1. General Information
1.1. Historical Background
Puerto Rico is an archipelago located in the Caribbean to the east of the Dominican Republic. It is one of the Greater Antilles and has a population of 3,193,694, according to the 2021 US Census. The island was discovered by Christopher Columbus on November 19, 1493, and it was named Isla de San Juan Bautista. Puerto Rico was a Spanish territory from 1493 until April 11, 1899, when the Island was ceded to the United States according to the Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, also known as the Treaty of Paris, as compensation of the Spanish–American War of 1898.
Since 1899, the Island of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, under the plenary power and sovereignty of the US Congress, in accordance with Article IV, sec. 3, cl. 2 of the US Constitution. In general terms and with some exceptions, since 1917 people born in Puerto Rico are US citizens.
1.2. Structure of the Government
The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico establishes that political power is derived from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will, within the terms of the compact agreed upon between the people of Puerto Rico and the United States of America. The Government is republican in form, and its powers are divided into legislative, judicial, and executive branches.
1.2.1. Legislative Power
The legislative power of Puerto Rico is regulated by Article III of the Constitution, in force since 1952. It is composed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, similar to any US state legislature. The Senate is composed of 27 senators, and the House of Representatives is composed of 51 representatives. The Island is divided into eight senatorial districts and 40 representative districts. Each senatorial district elects two Senators, and 11 senators are elected at large. Each representative district elects one representative, and 11 representatives are elected at large.
Under the Legislative Assembly, but with full independence, are some other offices created by the Constitution and/or special laws of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. These include the following:
Office of the Comptroller (Oficina del Contralor): Created by the Constitution, this office must audit all revenues, accounts, and expenditures of the Commonwealth. The Comptroller is appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of both Senate and House of Representatives for a ten-year term.
Office of the Ombudsman: (Oficina del Procurador del Ciudadano). Created by law and attached to the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico. The Ombudsman is appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of both Senate and House of Representatives for a ten-year term.
Civil Rights Commission (Comisión de Derechos Civiles): Created in 1965, the commission is in charge of investigating human rights violations and has authority to review policies and practices of the Government of Puerto Rico regarding Human Rights. It also carries out investigations and can appear as amicus curiae for cases regarding human rights. The Commission has five commissioners appointed by the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate. Their term is six years.
Office of Legislative Services (Oficina de Servicios Legislativos): This office supports the work of the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico and is the local version of the Library of Congress. It is in charge of the legislative laws history and procedure, which can be accessed free of charge, through the SUTRA database. Other tasks assigned to this Office include the Legislative Assembly Library, internships in the US Congress and the Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly for students and teachers, among others. Also, because Puerto Rican laws are enacted in Spanish, the Translation Division offer services to translate any Puerto Rican law into English.
1.2.2. Executive Power
The executive power, similar to the 50 US States, is regulated by Article IV of the Constitution. It is headed by the Governor, who is elected by direct vote in general election. The candidate must be at least 35 years old, a US citizen, and a citizen and resident of Puerto Rico for at least five years preceding the election. Quite similar to the US president at federal level, the Governor of Puerto Rico executes laws, can call the Legislative Assembly, appoints government officers according to the law, approves of veto legislation, and creates and changes agencies.
However, by Constitution, there must be Departments with Secretaries for State, Justice, Education, Health, Treasury, Labor, Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works. Other current Departments with Secretaries are Recreation and Sports, Housing, Family, Correction and Rehabilitation, Consumer Affairs, Natural Resources and Environment. Currently, the Structure of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, under the Office of the Governor, has 117 departments and executive agencies and has an online Agency Directory. If the Governor is absent and/or vacates office for any reason, the Secretary of State serves as Acting Governor until the end of the original Governor’s term.
1.2.3. Judicial Power
The judicial power is vested by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and in such other courts as may be established by law. The Judiciary Act of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico of 2003 (Ley de la Judicatura del Estado Libre Asociado de 2003) establishes that the highest judicial body is the Supreme Court, followed by the Court of Appeals, the Court of First Instance (divided into Superior and Municipal Courts), and the Office of Administration of the Courts.
Decisiones de Puerto Rico, or D.P.R., (Decisions of Puerto Rico) is the official reporter of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico opinions and sentences. Decisions issued since 1998 can be consulted free of charge on the Tribunal's official website. In addition, the Court of Appeals provides free consultation of cases and resolutions through its primary official website as well as its secondary website.
2. The Legal System
2.1. Historical Evolution
The Island of Puerto Rico, under Spanish sovereignty, was mainly ruled by the Compilation of the Laws of Indies, Fuero Juzgo, Fuero Real, Compilations of Laws of 1805, the Seven Partidas, and different Royal Cedulas and Decrees enacted by HM The King of Spain and/or the Governor of Puerto Rico. The only Puerto Rican constitutional periods, under Spanish rule, were the two times the Constitution of 1812 was in force, between 1812-1814 and 1820-1822. Since 1837, the Spanish Constitutions of 1837, 1845, 1869, and 1876, declared that Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines were governed by special laws, which were the Laws of Indies and other laws mentioned above. The Spanish Civil Code of 1889, with some changes and amendments was in force since 1889 until 2020.
From 1511 until 1800, the only court for Puerto Rico was the Royal Audience of Santo Domingo. In 1800, the Court was transferred to the Royal Audience of Puerto Principe, Cuba. Later, the Royal Audience of Puerto Rico was founded in 1831. This court was the last tribunal founded by Spain in the Americas. The main court was in San Juan with Juzgados across the Island. After the Treaty of Paris of 1898, the Royal Audience of Puerto Rico was transformed into the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.
The Supreme Court of the United States decided that Spanish law regarding US insular possessions after 1898 was no longer foreign law. Therefore, besides the US state of Louisiana, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a hybrid jurisdiction. The private law is mainly based in Spanish Civil Law, and the public law is mainly based in US Common Law.
2.2. General Court System
The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the highest and only court that exists in Puerto Rico by constitutional mandate. It interprets the Constitution and analyzes the constitutional validity of the laws passed by the Legislative Assembly, as well as the official actions of the other branches of government. The Supreme Court is the third level of courts; it is an appellate court, after the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeals. It has a Chief Justice and eight associate justices, whose term of office lasts until they reach 70 years of age, according to the Constitution.
Unlike the inherent sovereignty of federal, state, and Native American tribal courts, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and other courts of the Island are territorial and derive their power from the United States Congress, similar to the District of Columbia. The decisions of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeals of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is intermediate between the Court of First Instance and the Supreme Court. It is composed of 39 judges, who are appointed by the Governor of Puerto Rico, with the confirmation of the Senate, and serve for a term of 16 years. The administration of the Court of Appeals is entrusted to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and, by delegation, to a Judge Administrator and an Assistant Judge Administrator. Adjudications are divided into panels of no fewer than three judges and no more than seven judges. Each panel has a chairperson, and its composition changes annually on a random basis. This court has jurisdiction over appeals, certiorari, judicial review of administrative agencies’ decisions, habeas corpus, and mandamus.
The Court of First Instance is composed of Superior and Municipal Courts. It is divided into 13 judicial regions: San Juan, Bayamón, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Ponce, Guayama, Humacao, Caguas, Aibonito, Utuado, Carolina, and Fajardo. Each judicial region is composed of several municipalities except for the judicial region of San Juan, which only has one municipality that serves as the capital city of Puerto Rico. The Court has jurisdiction over all civil matters not preempted and/or reserved to US federal courts. In criminal matters, this Court hears all felony and misdemeanor cases, as well as all violations of municipal ordinances. Superior judges are appointed for a term of 16 years and municipal judges for a term 12 years, by the Governor of Puerto Rico with confirmation (advice and consent) of the Senate.
2.2.1. Office for the Administration of the Courts
Created by Article 2.016 of the Judiciary Act of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico of 2003, this Office will “perform the duties conducive to the acceleration of judicial proceedings; establish measures to achieve evaluation, efficiency and excellence in the provision of services and any other related duties for the better functioning of the judicial system.” The Director is discretionary appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico without a fixed term.
2.3. Specialized Courts
There are some specialized courts like the Minors and Family Court, located in the Autonomous City of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, this Court is specialized in family and minors matters. Due to issues reviewed and resolved by this Court, is not totally open to the public. In addition, there are Domestic Violence Courts, located in the judicial regions of Arecibo, Bayamón, Caguas, Carolina, Fajardo, Ponce and San Juan, there are Court rooms specialized for domestic violence cases. In the region of Utuado the Court was expanded to also attend to gender violence cases (including rape and sexual violence). There are also Drug Courts, located in the judicial centers of Arecibo, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, San Juan, Bayamón, Guayama, Mayagüez, Humacao and Fajardo, which are available for people with addiction problems who have been charged with a non-violent crime, receive treatment, and meet other statutory requirements.
2.4. U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico
In 1900, the US Congress created the US District Court of Puerto Rico and provided for one judge to be appointed for a four-year term. An act of 1938 changed the judge's term of office to eight years. In 1961, Congress authorized a second judge for the district. In 1966, another act of Congress granted life tenure during good behavior to future appointments to the two judgeships for the District of Puerto Rico, thus placing it as an Article III court, in the same status as other US district courts. In 1970, an additional judge was authorized. In 1978, another four judges were authorized. In 1915, the judicial district of Puerto Rico was assigned to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
3. Primary Sources of Law
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, under the plenary power and sovereignty of the US Congress, in accordance with the article. On July 3, 1950, the Congress of the United States enacted Pub.L. 81–600, 64 Stat. 319, authorizing the government of Puerto Rico to draft a Constitution for the Island. The Constitutional Assembly met for a period of several months between 1951 and 1952 during which the document was written. The framers had to follow only two basic requirements established under Pub.L. 81–600. The first was that the document must establish a republican form of government for the Island. The second was the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was finally approved by the US Congress in 1952.
Civil Code: In 1889, Spain extended the Civil Code to Puerto Rico. After cession of the Island to the United States, the Legislature amended the Civil Code with some regulations based on the Civil Code of Louisiana, and other US State Codes, which were in effect until 1930, when the third general amendment of the Civil Code was enacted. The amendment was in force until November 28, 2020, when the new Civil Code of 2020 was introduced.
Rules of Civil Procedure: The current Rules of Civil Procedure were adopted by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico on September 4, 2009 and were forwarded to the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico on September 17, 2009 for final approval. Since coming into force on July 1, 2010, the rules have been amended several times. See the current Rules of Civil Procedure (in Spanish).
Military Code: Created by Act N0. 62 of June 23, 1969, the Military Code regulates the Army and Air National Guards of Puerto Rico, and the State Guard or Militia, including Martial Courts, enlistment and benefits for soldiers. See Military Code (in Spanish).
Rules of Criminal Procedure: The Rules currently in force were originally created by the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico and adopted by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico in 1963. As today, the rules have been amended more than 100 times by the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico. See Rules of Criminal Procedure (in Spanish)
Insurances Code: Created by Act Num. 77 of June 19, 1977 and amended until December 2020, the Code regulates all the insurance industry, except some regulated agencies of the Government of Puerto Rico. The office is headed by the Commissioner of Insurances of Puerto Rico. The law also includes a Bill of Rights for insurance consumers of Puerto Rico. See Insurance Code of Puerto Rico (in Spanish). Also, there is another Health Insurance Code (in Spanish), which regulates the health industry.
Incentives Code: The purposes of this Code are to consolidate the laws and regulations of the decrees, incentives, subsidies, reimbursements, contributory, or financial benefits; promote the sustainable economic development of Puerto Rico; and to provide stability, certainty, and credibility in private investment matters, among others. See Incentives Code of 2019 (in Spanish). As important remark, this Code amended the Act 20, known as the Act to Promote the Export of Services, and Act 22, known as the Individual Investors Act.
Internal Revenue Code: This Code was enacted in 2011 and amended by Act No. 173-2020. Covers tax laws regarding income tax, inheritance and gift tax, excise tax, sales and use tax, alcoholic beverage tax, taxpayer’s bill of rights, and administrative provisions. See Internal Revenue Code of 2011 (in Spanish).
Municipal Code: This Code was created by the Act No. 107 of August 14, 2020, of the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico. This Act repealed several laws relating to the municipalities of Puerto Rico, in effect since the beginning of the 20th century, pursuant to Section 1 of Article VI of the Constitution of Puerto Rico. Among the matters dealt with are autonomy, taxes, housing, sports facilities, debts, and ordinances. See Municipal Code (in Spanish)
Electoral Code: This Code was enacted by Act No. 58 of June 20, 2020. Compiles, amends and/or repeals various existing laws, including local voting rights and requirements, political campaign financing, and the United States presidential primary elections in the Island, among others. See Electoral Code of 2020 (in Spanish)
Penal Code: Since 1879, Puerto Rico has a Penal Code. The current code, enacted by Act No. 146 of July 30, 2012, and amended, defines new crimes in accordance with newly created laws and jurisprudence. See Penal Code (in Spanish).
Political Code: Enacted in July 1902 is the oldest code currently in force in Puerto Rico, the original purpose was to develop the Organic Act of 1900. Also, this Code includes some general provisions of the Spanish Civil Code of 1889 that were not included in the 1902 revision of the Civil Code of Puerto Rico. See the current Political Code, with amendments as of 2021 (in Spanish).
3.3. Law Reports and Compilations of Legislation
Leyes de Puerto Rico Anotadas (Laws of Puerto Rico Annotated). This is a primary source of statutes of Puerto Rico. It has official versions in Spanish and English and is constantly being amended. L.P.R.A. al Día - Sections amended by Laws - 2021 (in Spanish)
The "Miguel J. Rodríguez Fernández Library" is a free virtual library managed by the Office of Management and Budget of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and has compiled laws of Puerto Rico with the latest amendments approved by the Legislature and is updated daily (in Spanish). Biblioteca Virtual: "Biblioteca Miguel J. Rodríguez Fernández"
3.4. Case Law Reports and Digests
Decisiones de Puerto Rico, or D.P.R., (Decisions of Puerto Rico) is the official reporter of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico opinions and sentences. The first volume is from 1899, after the cession of the Island in 1898. Currently, the Supreme Court has cases dating back to 1998 on its official webpage, Decisiones del Tribunal Supremo.
Decisiones del Tribunal de Apelaciones are the final court rulings and decisions from the Court of Appeals of Puerto Rico and are available on the Tribunal de Apelaciones website (2015–).
4. Legal Journals
University of Puerto Rico School of Law
- Revista Jurídica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico
- Revista Jurídica Digital de la Universidad de Puerto Rico
Inter-American University of Puerto Rico Faculty of Law
- Revista Jurídica de la Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico
- Revista de Estudios Críticos del Derecho (CLAVE)
- Revista AMICUS
- Revista de Política Publica y Legislación UIPR
Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico School of Law
Colegio de Abogados y Abogadas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Bar Association)
Asociación de Abogados de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Lawyers’ Association)
Academia de Jurisprudencia y Legislación de Puerto Rico
Colegio de Notarios de Puerto Rico (Civil Law Notary Association of Puerto Rico)
The law reviews of the three Puerto Rico law schools created a uniform citation manual for Puerto Rico's legal sources. This manual brings together corresponding standards from The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation and the Real Academia Española to meet the peculiar needs of the Puerto Rican legal system, which operates primarily in the Spanish language, and which the Bluebook does not sufficiently cover.
5. Electronic Resources
- Puerto Rico Bar Association (in Spanish)
- Colegio de Notarios de Puerto Rico
- Academia Puertorriqueña de Jurisprudencia y Legislación
6. Legal Bookstores
 Art. 4.003 (4 L.P.R.A. § 24v).
 An Act to amend section 42 of title 7 of the Canal Zone Code and section 41 of the Act entitled "An Act to provide a civil government for Porto Rico, and for other purposes", approved March 2, 1917, as amended. March 26, 1938, 52 Stat. 118.
 An Act to provide the same life tenure and retirement rights for judges hereafter appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico as the judges of all other United States district courts now have, September 12, 1966, 80 Stat. 764.