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U.S. Supreme Court

Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic Party, 457 U.S. 1 (1982)

Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic Party

No. 81-328

Argued March 22, 1982

Decided June 7, 1982

457 U.S. 1


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

Page 457 U. S. 2

interim replacement for one of its members who vacates a position as a district senator or representative, does not violate the Federal Constitution. Pp. 457 U. S. 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, 416 U. S. 673, 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. 457 U. S. 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. 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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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.

Page 457 U. S. 3

Appellee was not required to include participation by nonmembers. P. 457 U. S. 14.

___P.R.R. ___, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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