Analysis of Puerto Rico’s State Court System

THE modern US judicial system is extremely difficult. Small courts with a simple structure of the past are replaced by a more massive and wide-scale judicial organization, which requires the implementation of qualitatively new approaches to the management and financing, as well as more highly qualified personnel of the judiciary system. In fact, this development provides a balance for the judiciary in connection to the other two branches: the legislative and executive branches of the government. On this basis, the organization and implementation of new standards of American judicial order and process in Puerto Rico require a careful approach. Moreover, the population of this state should not face any potential problems on this issue.

As it is known, the US judicial system is complex, since in addition to the federal judicial organization each state operates its own system of courts, where these two systems are not identical. Each state has its own characteristics in the judicial system. State court system has residual jurisdiction. This means that all cases, which do not fall within the competence of the federal courts, are considered by the state courts only. State courts are created by the state, so the state court systems differ. However, it is possible to trace some general similarities.

The courts of general and special jurisdiction function in every state. Also there are the courts of first appeal and the highest court of instances for appeals consideration and the constitutionality of the state laws and actions regarding the state constitution. Usually the state court systems are: states district courts, state appellate courts, and supreme courts of the states.

State judges are not appointed by the President unlike federal ones. The procedure of how a person becomes a judge can vary not only from state to state, but within the same state, depending on the type of the court. In most states, judges are elected to post for a specified period, after which one again stands for election. In some cases, judges may appoint a governor for a specified period with the consent of the upper chamber of the state legislature from the circle of individuals proposed by the expert community of the state legislature or other judges. A feature of multiple US judicial system is the fact that the state court decisions cannot be appealed by the federal courts, and vice versa, except for the review of decisions of the state courts in the US supreme court.

This research project will examine this and other features on the example of Michigan, Rhode Island and Tennessee judiciary systems. Considering these systems the author will use a chance to propose a judiciary structure for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Brief Information

Puerto Rico is the US possession in the West Indies, which occupies the island of Puerto Rico and the island of Vieques, Culebra, Mona and other groups of the Greater Antilles. The total area is 8900 Population is 3,620,897 people, mostly Puerto Ricans (CIA, 2014).

Puerto Ricans are officially US citizens, but they do not pay taxes to the federal treasury and are not eligible to participate in the US presidential election (“Congress approves referendum on future of Puerto Rico,” 2010). Administratively, the country is divided into 78 municipalities. The highest legislative body is the US Congress, which administers the issues of foreign policy and defense of the island. Puerto Rico is represented by the Resident Commissioner in the US Congress. He has a right of initiative, but has no right to vote. Legislative power belongs to the framework of the autonomy of the Legislative Assembly, composed of two chambers: the Senate (28 senators) and the House of Representatives (51 members), who are elected by Puerto Ricans who have reached the age of 18 years, by direct voting for 4 years on the basis of universal suffrage.

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Judiciary structure of Puerto Rico includes the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of First Instance, which consists of two parts: the Supreme Court and Municipal Court (justices for all these courts appointed by the Governor of Puerto Rico, with the agreement of the Senate of the Assembly) (Hayes, n.d.)


Michigan is a back side to Puerto Rico almost in all the dimensions. Its territory is ten times larger; it is three times more populated (CIA, 2014). However, there are common court related details used by many other states that were developed in Michigan. Before investigating it the author will observe the court system of Michigan.

Court of Appeal of Michigan operates on the basis of the Constitution of the State of Michigan accepted in 1963 and consists of 28 judges (Michigan Courts, n.d.). The Court of Appeal is the intermediate between the judicial authority of the Supreme Court of Michigan, and lower courts. Judges of the Court of Appeal will be elected directly by the people through non-partisan state elections. Requirements for candidates for appellate judges are the following: to be under the age of 70 years; have a legal education; have a right to vote; permanently reside in the territory of the district from which one is running for the Court of Appeal. The authority of a judge of the Court of Appeal is limited to a period of 8 years (seems best to Puerto Rico) (“Michigan election law: Act 116 of 1954,” n.d.).

Finally, the legislation of Michigan provides place to the Chief Judge, who is elected by the judges of the Court of Appeal for a period of 2 years. The Chief Judge, in addition, administers the Court of Appeal, and performs other functions assigned to them by the Supreme Court of Michigan.

Court of Appeal of Michigan considers criminal and civil cases, and its decisions (judgments) are final, except in cases that only the Supreme Court is empowered to review. The procedure of the trial in the Court of Appeal is similar to that of the Supreme Court of Michigan.

There are 105 district courts in Michigan, which employ 276 judges (Michigan Supreme Court, 2014). The number of judges in each county court varies and depends on the number of appeals from citizens and other persons; where judicial districts include numerous settlements, judges of district courts hold regular outreach sessions.

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Judges of the district courts are elected directly by the people through non-partisan elections. Judge must be a citizen who has not attained the age of 70 years by the Election Day, permanently resides in the territory of the judicial district of the state and is eligible to vote.

District courts in Michigan are courts of first instance with general jurisdiction. Firstly, they consider essential civil matters and, secondly, the criminal cases in which the criminal act is viewed as felony or serious misdemeanor (except for claims and accusations related to the state law of the jurisdiction of other courts). The jurisdiction of district courts is comprised of state and family matters of divorce and paternity establishment. In addition, the district courts of Michigan can review decisions (judgments) of the lower courts in appellate procedure and the decisions of some administrative bodies at the state government. Finally, they provide overall administrative supervision in relation to other vessels located in the judicial district.

Circuit courts of Michigan form the link of the judicial system with broadest jurisdiction. They consider civil claims of around $ 25,000, as well as petty crimes in the sphere of city transport and trade. There are 57 circuit courts that operate in Michigan (Michigan Court, n.d.).

In some states the ethical standards of professional activities of lawyers are written in the court procedural code. These documents are called differently: Code of Ethics, Code of Professional Responsibility, Legal Ethics Code, etc. The actual procedure of disciplinary cases also varies from state to state. However, the most common procedure is carried out in Michigan (“Commission procedures during the complaint process,” n.d.).

A procedure for this is as follows: the person concerned goes to the Complaints Committee, which functions as a part of the State Law Association. A copy of the complaint is sent to the attorney against whom it is filed. The lawyer receives a complaint on his/her behavior in the period specified in the rules. Then the lawyer or an advocate gives a written reply to association with a copy given to the complainant. Getting the answer, the secretary of the Complaints Committee invites warring parties for reconciliation if circumstances permit proceedings. If reconciliation is not achieved, the hearing is appointed with all the judicial paraphernalia (although it is not a judicial review of the dispute). Plaintiff, defendant and a lawyer from the association are to be present in the hall of the court to hear witnesses, who are given the oath. The Committee, having considered the dispute shall make its written verdict that either dismisses the complaint or imposes penalties on the lawyer being found guilty for professional misconduct.

However, the Committee’s decision is only advisory in nature (private or public comment, a temporary ban for engaging in the practice of law, the indefinite suspension from the practice of law). It is transferred to the district court, which issues writs of hearing. Court sessions are held collectively (involving three judges), but without a jury. The court may decide to approve, modify or reject the proposals of the Committee. The decision of the court may be appealed to the State Supreme Court. This ethic aspect seems the best to be applied in Puerto Rico since the process is not that heavy and has somewhat honest neighbor factor which is suitable for Puerto Ricans.

Moreover, according to the Constitution of the State of Michigan, Supreme Court may prescribe time and place of the trial to the Court of Appeal. The court sessions of the Court of Appeal are held in 4 major cities of the state (Michigan Court, n.d.). Thus, the Court of Appeal of Michigan has 4 regional offices, and that, on the one hand, ensures uniform application of legal rules within the state, and on the other hand, eliminates legal conflicts in its specific geographic areas.

This detail being simple to apply is also valuable for Puerto Rico because of the small area the state occupies. Plus, the major towns of Puerto Rico are situated in the North and South of the state. Thus, the geographical aspect is accepted as well.

Rhode Island

The organization of the judiciary in the State of Rhode Island has its own characteristics. The judicial system is headed by the state Supreme Court, which is primarily responsible for the revision of judicial decisions and judgments of other courts of the state. There are two types of trial courts: District, Family, Administrative Arbitration, Court of Reimbursement of Labor Compensation (all of them are courts of limited jurisdiction) and the Supreme Court (judicial body of general jurisdiction) in the judicial hierarchy of Rhode Island.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island consists of 5 judges who are appointed for the lifetime, or fulfill their functions until the age of 70 years (ABA, 2008). Apparatus of the Supreme Court includes 119 employees (Tripoli, 2008). Chief Judge of the Supreme Court is regarded as a responsible leader of the entire court system of the state.

The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over all matters of statutory law and the law of equity (for example, the decisions and judgments of the Supreme Court). It is responsible for the general administrative supervision of all judicial staff plus the court implements the constitutional supervision over the constitution of the local legislative and executive powers of the state.

As has already been mentioned, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island is the court of general jurisdiction. Accordingly, it considers the civil cases, including those substantiated by the right of justice, with the amount of the claim in excess of $ 5,000, as well as criminal cases.

The Supreme Court of the State can act as a Court of Appeal for complaints against decisions and judgments of the District Court, the Courts of the Wills and Inheritance Municipal Courts. The appellate party can count on a retrial, except for the cases established by statutory law of Rhode Island if a complaint is received on the decision or judgment of the District Court.

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court also includes extradition, expropriation of land, enforcement of an arbitral award, zonal appeal and some others.

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Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation of Rhode Island is significant for Puerto Rico since it is well organized. This judicial body appeared in Rhode Island not long ago, in 1991 (Sugano, 2007). Today the Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation consists of 10 judges, and its staff includes 53 employees, thus, in relation to Puerto Rico, this number is insufficient (Sugano, 2007).

The activities of the Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation are aimed at ensuring the observance of the labor laws of the state, which are based on the following principles: the right for health care and reasonable periodic payments to victims of labor accidents; right to a single compensation for damages and the reduction of costs and delays arising from the litigation pending in the court of injuries received in the workplace; support of public and private charitable activities to provide financial assistance to victims of labor accidents; encouragement of employers to use means of safety (Sugano, 2007).

Thus, the Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation of Rhode Island has jurisdiction over all disputes between the employer and the employee, if they affect the compensation of professional disability, the degree and duration of occupational disability, and if there are no grounds to file medical and hospital claims.

Appellate proceedings on appeals against the decisions of the Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation can have two stages. The first stage takes place in the framework of the appellate division of the Court for Reimbursement of Labor Compensation, which consists of three judges who did not participate in the adoption of the contested decision. If one of the parties is not satisfied with the decision of the appellate division, then this party has a right to file a petition to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, and thereby initiate the second stage of the appeal proceedings using the writ of certiorari.


First of all, the judicial organization of the state of Tennessee has a complex structure: three-tier system of general courts complements the courts of limited jurisdiction (“Report from the Commission on the future of the Tennessee judicial system,” n.d.). Secondly, this state is recognized as the most corrupted among others states of the US (Sirota, 2014). The author believes that the complexity of the court structure of Tennessee plays a role in the corruption formation, directly or indirectly. However, this state’s system also has valuable advisory for Puerto Rico since the corruption level of Puerto Rico is also high compared to the rest of the states (Worley-Lopez, 2014).

The judicial system is headed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which is composed of 5 judges (“Report from the Commission on the future of the Tennessee judicial system,” n.d.). Candidates for judges of the Supreme Court are determined by the commission for the selection of judges in the state government and subsequently approved by a vote on the eight-year term. In the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is reviewing questions of civil and criminal cases on the basis of an appeal against the decisions and judgments of lower courts.

There are two intermediate appellate jurisdictions of the court in Tennessee: Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal. Both are composed of 12 judges who are elected for an 8 years term (“Report from the Commission on the future of the Tennessee judicial system,” n.d.).

The district courts of Tennessee, which consist of 79 judges, are competent to disassemble not only civil, family and criminal cases, but also hear appeals against decisions of the grassroots of the judiciary, i.e. general courts sessions, juvenile courts and municipal courts. Jurisdiction of district courts in the civil sphere largely coincides with the jurisdiction of the courts of appeal. With regard to the criminal law field, the district courts may not consider criminal charges in those jurisdictions where the General Assembly of Tennessee formed separate criminal courts. This courts functions’ doubling at some point overloads the system. However, there are two aspects that are of certain interest.

First is Planning Commission. The Supreme Court of Tennessee has formed this commission to monitor the implementation of federal programs to improve the activity of the courts, adopted in accordance with the Federal Act for the preservation and support of the family (Terry, 2013). It provides assistance to the courts in handling cases of child abuse. The commission consists of 28 members, among which are the judges, and representatives of other professions related to education, training and maintenance of children (Terry, 2013).

Second is Commission for the Evaluation of Judges and the Commission on the Implementation of the Program of Permanent Employment of Judges (Tennessee Courts System, 2014). This program was adopted by the Supreme Court of Tennessee in 1995 and resulted in the formation of two independent commissions following the rules established by the special order of the Supreme Court.

Commission for the Evaluation of Judges oversees the implementation of their duties based on such criteria as knowledge and understanding of the law, integrity, preparedness, ability to communicate, social activity, operating efficiency and others. Commission on the Implementation of the Program of Permanent Employment of Judges examines issues of employment, using data from the Commission on the Evaluation of Judges, as well as the results of opinion polls conducted among the judiciary and the population of the state of Tennessee.


Puerto Rico court system structure is to be formed using other states’ experiences, their peculiarities and the consequent results. The three states, Michigan, Rhode Island and Tennessee, were chosen to select or discard some of the aspects of their court systems. Thus, Michigan experience seems to be the most suitable in geographic and ethic aspects. The state has a huge territory but efficient functioning with less corruption. Its four offices of the Court of Appeal cover the whole state providing a good example for Puerto Ricans. Moreover, the simplicity of the system, particularly, Commission on Ethics and its activity are also valuable in terms of creating and adopting it to new territories.

The state of Rhode Island can boast with the regulation of labor relations in the society. It is well organized with thorough narrow specialty that, overall, helps achieve positive results. The workforce of Puerto Rico is big in comparison to the general population. Therefore, this court tool is highly valuable.

Tennessee, being declared the most corrupted state, also provides useful aspects of its court system structure. Puerto Rico has a quite high corruption level as well. Thus, the state is advised to review the Commission for the Evaluation of Judges and the Commission on the Implementation of the Program of Permanent Employment of Judges of Tennessee. Moreover, the state has well developed court tools to monitor any family issues it can face.

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