Popular Democratic Party v. Com. of Puerto Rico

Decision Date13 October 1998
Docket NumberNo. Civ. No. 98-2004 PG.,Civ. No. 98-2004 PG.
PartiesPOPULAR DEMOCRATIC PARTY, et al., Plaintiffs, v. COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico

Lino Saldaña, Hato Rey, PR, for plaintiffs.

José A. Fuentes-Agostini, Attorney General, Gustavo Gelpí, Jr., Deputy Attorney General, Carlos Lugo-Fiol, Solicitor General, San Juan, PR, for defendants.

OPINION & ORDER

PEREZ-GIMENEZ, District Judge.

Before this Court is plaintiffs' motion to remand this action to the Court of First Instance of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and defendants' opposition to said motion. Having received oral arguments on the matter, this Court shall now rule on the plaintiffs' motion.

I. Introduction: The 1998 Plebiscite & Plaintiffs' Complaint

On August 17, 1998, the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico approved Act No. 249 which provides for the occurrence of a plebiscite on December 13, 1998, in which Puerto Rican voters may express their preference from among several "political status or petition to the Federal Government options on the scope of United States sovereignty over Puerto Rico and the political condition of the citizens who reside on the [i]sland." Act No. 249, Art. 2. Once the Governor signed into law Act No. 249, the Popular Democratic Party, a principal political party of Puerto Rico, as provided by Art. 3.001 of the Electoral Act, 16 L.P.R.A. § 3101, as well as four individual voters affiliated with said political entity, filed the present complaint on September 3, 1998 against the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the State Elections Commission and its Commissioners, the New Progressive Party, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party, at the Court of First Instance of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Superior Court of San Juan.

The plaintiffs raise six causes of action in their complaint. As drafted, all six of them seek relief based exclusively on the Puerto Rico Constitution. Defendants contend that the plaintiffs' first and fifth causes of action necessarily invoke the Court's federal jurisdiction.

The first cause of action of the complaint states that "Law No. 249 ... is discriminatory and affects the decision of the people of Puerto Rico with respect to its political destiny and its relations with the United States." See Certified Translation of Complaint at 16. The plaintiffs also allege in their first cause of action that "[t]he ballot and the definition of the Commonwealth status option1 contradicts and does not allow a vote for the present juridical status of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico recognized by the Constitution of Puerto Rico and the case law of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court." (Emphasis added). Id. This definition, plaintiffs claim, is misleading and deceitful. Id. at 17. The first cause of action also asserts that the definition of statehood2 is biased and deceitful as well. Id. at 18.

The second cause of action essentially alleges that Law No. 249 forces the Popular Democratic Party to "abandon its platform and its political ideology" because of the definition of the Commonwealth status option that will be provided in the ballot. Id. at 20. According to this second cause of action, Law No. 249 violates the rights of equal protection, electoral equality, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process of the law protected by the Constitution of Puerto Rico. Id. at 20-21.

Because Law No. 249 prohibits any political party from advocating and promoting voters to choose the ballot option that states "none of the preceding", the third cause of action alleges that the Popular Democratic Party has been deprived of rights embedded in the Constitution of Puerto Rico like electoral equality, freedom of expression, equal protection of the laws, freedom of association, and due process of the law. Id. at 22. Such violation, plaintiffs allege, nullifies the plebiscite conceived by Law No. 249. Id. at 23.

The same rights of electoral equality, equal protection of the laws, freedom of expression and of association, due process of the law as provided by the Constitution of Puerto Rico are claimed in the fourth cause of action to have been violated with respect to individual plaintiffs Delia Castillo Ortiz, Gonzalo Fernós López, Elsa Tió Fernández, and Gregoria. Vázquez Rivera, as registered voters who are affiliated with the Popular Democratic Party. Id. at 23-24. Their right to "suffrage free from any coercion", the fourth cause of action continues, has been violated. Id. at 23.

The fifth cause of action alleges that while Law No. 249 pretends to give the impression that the House of Representatives of the United States has granted its approval of the status options described in Art. 4(2) of the Law, said options are "very different" from those approved by the House of Representatives in the 105th Congress of the United States in H.R.856, known as the "United States — Puerto Rico Political Status Act." Id. at 27. In addition, the fifth cause of action complains about the fact that the "free association" option3 included in Law No. 249 is nowhere to be found in H.R.856; the inclusion of such option allegedly has the purpose of splitting the vote of those affiliated with the Popular Democratic Party. Id. at 28. As to the Commonwealth status option provided by Law No. 249, plaintiffs allege that "it is misleading and deceitful because it affirms that ... Congress has delegated to Puerto Rico the conducting of a government limited to strictly local matters under its own constitution and that such government would be subject to the authority of Congress (Art. 4(2)(b)) without mentioning that under Commonwealth, Puerto Rico, as a state, is an autonomous political entity sovereign over affairs not regulated by the U.S. Constitution." Id. at 30. The fifth cause of action also complains about the fact that Law No. 249 orders that the status options in the ballots be identified by numbers rather than by the political status that they represent. Id. at 29.

Finally, the sixth cause of action alleges that one of the plaintiffs does not know how to read and that the absence of symbols to identify status options in the ballot violates her right to suffrage, equal protection of the laws, freedom of expression, and due process under the Constitution of Puerto Rico. Id. at 31-32.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441, the case was removed to this Court on September 3, 1998. Plaintiffs then filed the motion to remand the case to the Commonwealth court on September 8, 1998, opposed by defendants on September 11, 1998. Plaintiffs responded to defendants' opposition on September 28, 1998, and defendants replied on October 1, 1998. Oral arguments were received by the Court on October 5, 1998.

Originally, in their motion to remand plaintiffs stated three reasons in opposition to removal: that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, that it should abstain, and that the removal procedure was defective. Subsequently, plaintiffs argue in their response to defendants' opposition to motion to remove this case to the Court of First Instance of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico that: (1) the grounds for removal do not arise from the face of plaintiffs' well pleaded complaint; (2) the artful pleading exception is inapplicable; (3) the purported grounds for removal constitute a defense; and (4) Puerto Rico's Constitution is not federal law.

II. Federal Jurisdiction as Seen Through the Lens of Removal
A. The Well Pleaded Complaint, Artful Pleading, & the Merrell Dow Standard

"District courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States." 28 U.S.C § 1331. In order for a case or controversy to "arise under" federal law for purposes of § 1331 it must be clear or apparent from the face of the plaintiff's complaint that a federal question is at issue. Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149, 29 S.Ct. 42, 53 L.Ed. 126 (1908). This requirement is generally referred to as the "well-pleaded complaint rule." Verlinden, B.V. v. Cent. Bank of Nigeria, 461 U.S. 480, 494, 103 S.Ct. 1962, 76 L.Ed.2d 81 (1983). Hence, mere assertion of a federal law defense or its anticipation is not sufficient to grant a federal court jurisdiction. Hernandez Agosto v. Romero Barcelo, 748 F.2d 1, 2-3 (1st Cir.1984) (per curiam).

Two corollaries emerge from the well-pleaded complaint rule: First, a defendant may not remove a case from state court to federal court unless it is readily apparent from the face of the plaintiffs' complaint that there is a federal question. Second, "Congress may so completely pre-empt a particular area that any civil complaint raising this select group of claims is necessarily federal in character." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Taylor, 481 U.S. 58, 107 S.Ct. 1542, 95 L.Ed.2d 55 (1987). For instance, such complete preemption has been the case with § 301 of the LMRA, Avco Corp. v. Aero Lodge No. 735 Int'l Ass'n Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 390 U.S. 557, 88 S.Ct. 1235, 20 L.Ed.2d 126 (1968), and § 502 of ERISA. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., supra.

A defendant also may not remove a case from state to federal court if the plaintiff voluntarily elects not to present an available federal claim. Fair v. Kohler Die & Specialty Co., 228 U.S. 22, 25, 33 S.Ct. 410, 57 L.Ed. 716 (1913) ("The party who brings a suit is master to decide what law he will rely upon and therefore does determine whether he will bring a `suit arising under' ... [the] law of the United States.") Nevertheless, "a plaintiff may not defeat removal by omitting to plead necessary federal questions in a complaint." Franchise Tax Bd. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1, 22, 103 S.Ct. 2841, 77 L.Ed.2d 420 (1983). Just as artificial manufacturing of federal jurisdiction through technicalities — which has been referred to as "artful pleading" — is unsuccessful in opening the federal court's...

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