Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic Party, 81-328

Citation457 U.S. 1,102 S.Ct. 2194,72 L.Ed.2d 628
Decision Date07 June 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-328,81-328
PartiesJesus Rivera RODRIGUEZ et al., Appellants, v. POPULAR DEMOCRATIC PARTY et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Syllabus

A member of appellee Popular Democratic Party (hereafter appellee) who was elected in a 1980 general election to the Puerto Rico House of Representatives from District 31, died in 1981. The Governor of Puerto Rico subsequently called for a "by-election" open to all qualified voters in District 31—to fill the vacancy. Appellee then filed suit in the Superior Court of Puerto Rico, alleging that the Puerto Rico statutes under which the Governor purported to act authorized only candidates and electors affiliated with appellee to participate in the by-election. Appellants, qualified electors in District 31 who are not affiliated with appellee, intervened as defendants. The court entered judgment for appellee. The Puerto Rico Supreme Court modified the Superior Court's judgment, holding, inter alia, that the pertinent statute, as properly construed, requires a by-election only if the party of the legislator vacating the seat fails to designate a replacement within 60 days after the vacancy occurs, and that if the party selects a single candidate within such period, that candidate is declared "automatically elected to fill the vacancy." The court rejected appellants' contention that this procedure violated the Federal Constitution. While the case was pending before the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, appellee held a primary election in which only its members were permitted to participate and which resulted in the selection of a person who, pursuant to the Supreme Court's mandate, was sworn in as the new representative from District 31.

Held: The Puerto Rico statute, as interpreted by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to vest in a political party the initial authority to appoint an interim replacement for one of its members who vacates a position as a district senator or representative, does not violate the Federal Constitution. Pp. 5-14.

(a) The voting rights of Puerto Rico citizens are constitutionally protected to the same extent as those of all other United States citizens. At the same time, Puerto Rico, like a state, is an autonomous political entity, "sovereign over matters not ruled by the Constitution," Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 673, 94 S.Ct. 2080, 2086, 40 L.Ed.2d 452, and the methods by which its people and their representatives have chosen to structure the Commonwealth's electoral system are entitled to substantial deference. Pp. 7-8.

(b) The right to vote, per se, is not a constitutionally protected right, and the Constitution does not compel a fixed method of choosing state or local officers or representatives. While a citizen has a constitutionally protected right to participate in elections on an equal basis with other citizens in the jurisdiction when a state or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has provided that its representatives be elected, the Puerto Rico statute at issue does not restrict access to the electoral process or afford unequal treatment to different classes of voters, candidates, or political parties. All qualified voters have an equal opportunity to select a district representative in the general election; and the interim appointment provision applies uniformly to all legislative vacancies, whenever they arise. Cf. Valenti v. Rockefeller, 393 U.S. 405, 89 S.Ct. 689, 21 L.Ed.2d 635. Moreover, the interim appointment system serves the legitimate purpose of ensuring that vacancies are filled promptly, without the necessity of the expense and inconvenience of a special election. Pp. 8-12.

(c) Nor is Puerto Rico's appointment mechanism rendered constitutionally defective by virtue of the fact that the interim appointment power is given to the political party with which the previous incumbent was affiliated. The Puerto Rico Legislature could reasonably conclude that appointment by the previous incumbent's political party would more fairly reflect the will of the voters than appointment by the Governor or some other elected official, particularly where such official is a member of a different party. And in light of Puerto Rico's special interest in ensuring minority representation in its legislature, it was not unreasonable for the legislature, in establishing the appointment system for filling vacancies, to make provision for continuity of party representation. Pp. 12-13.

(d) Appellants' rights of association and equal protection of the laws were not violated by their exclusion, because of their party affiliation, from appellee's special election held to select the interim representative. Puerto Rico law authorized appellee to designate the interim replacement, and it was entitled to adopt its own procedures for such selection. Appellee was not required to include participation by nonmembers. P. 14.

____ P.R.R. ____, affirmed.

Philip Lacovara, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Abe Fortas, Washington, D.C., for appellees.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this appeal is whether Puerto Rico may by statute vest in a political party the power to fill an interim vacancy in the Puerto Rico Legislature. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico held that such a procedure did not violate the United States Constitution. We noted probable jurisdiction, 454 U.S. 938, 102 S.Ct. 472, 70 L.Ed.2d 246 (1981), and we affirm.

I

In the November 4, 1980, Puerto Rico general election, Ramon Muniz, a member of appellee Popular Democratic Party, was elected to the Puerto Rico House of Representatives from District 31.1 Muniz died on January 28, 1981. The Governor of Puerto Rico, a member of the opposition New Progressive Party, subsequently called for a "by-election"—open to all qualified voters in District 31—to fill the vacancy caused by Muniz' death. The Governor purported to act pursuant to Articles 5.006 and 5.007 of the Electoral Law of Puerto Rico, P.R. Laws Ann., Tit. 16, §§ 3206, 3207 (Supp.1980).2

On March 3, 1981, the Popular Democratic Party instituted this action in the Superior Court of Puerto Rico, alleging that Articles 5.006 and 5.007 authorized only candidates and electors affiliated with the Party to participate in the by-election. Appellants, 10 qualified electors in District 31 who are not affiliated with the Popular Democratic Party, intervened as defendants. On March 20, 1981, the Superior Court entered judgment for the Popular Democratic Party; it ordered the Governor and General Administrator of Elections to limit participation in the by-election to Party members. App. to Juris. Statement 36a.

A divided Supreme Court of Puerto Rico modified the Superior Court's judgment. It interpreted Articles 5.006 and 5.007 to require a by-election only in the event that the party of the legislator vacating the seat fails to designate a replacement within 60 days after the vacancy occurred; if the party selects a single candidate within the 60-day period, that candidate is "automatically elected to fill the vacancy," rendering a by-election unnecessary. Popular Democratic Party v. Barcelo, ____ P.R.R. ____ (1981). The court held further that if the party presents more than one candidate during the 60-day period, a by-election must be conducted in which only party-affiliated candidates may run but in which all qualified electors may vote. In the event no candidate is presented within the 60-day period, candidates affiliated with any party, as well as independent candidates, are permitted to run in the by-election. Because of the delay already occasioned by the litigation, the court permitted appellee party only 30 days from the entry of judgment, May 8, 1981, to present a "slate" of candidates to the Commonwealth Election Commission. The court ordered that "[i]f said slate is limited to only one candidate, he shall be certified by the General Administrator of Elections as the person entitled to hold the vacant seat." Id., at ____.3

The court rejected appellants' contention that this procedure violated the United States Constitution. It noted that the Constitution does not expressly require a fixed method for filling vacancies in a state or commonwealth legislature. The court also held that Puerto Rico's party appointment system serves several "compelling interests," such as ensuring the stability and continuity of the "legislative balance" until the next general election; protecting the "electoral mandate" of the previous election; and reducing "inter-partisan political campaigns to once every four years." Id., at ____.

II

Puerto Rico, in common with many of the States, has adopted means of filling interim vacancies in elective commonwealth offices without the necessity of a full-scale special election.4 If a vacancy occurs in the office of Governor, it is automatically filled by the Secretary of State, an officer appointed by the Governor. P.R.Const., Art. IV, § 7. Mayoral vacancies and vacancies in the municipal assemblies are filled by appointment upon the recommendation of the political party to which the incumbent belonged. P.R. Laws Ann., Tit. 21, §§ 1161, 1259 (1974). Similarly, the Commonwealth Constitution provides that vacancies in the posts of at-large senators and representatives, see n.13, infra, shall be filled "upon recommendation of the political party to which belonged the Senator or Representative causing the vacancy. . . ." Art. III, § 8. Article 5.006 of the Puerto Rico Electoral Law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico in this case, likewise confers on a political party the initial opportunity to appoint an interim replacement for one of its members who vacates a position as a district sena- tor or representative. In each case, the appointee serves only until the next regularly scheduled election.5

Appellants' challenge to the procedure mandated by Article 5.006 is essentially two-pronged. Appellants...

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