[News] Puerto Rico Bar Association Under Attack

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 13 12:30:27 EDT 2009

Sent: 4/13/2009 11:15:06 A.M. Central Daylight Time
Subj: Puerto Rico Bar Association Under Attack

Puerto Rico Bar Association Under Attack

  The Puerto Rico Bar Association, founded in 
1840, is the oldest professional organization in 
Puerto Rico and the third oldest in the American 
hemisphere. It is a mandatory organization, 
similar to the majority of state bar associations 
in the U.S., such as California and Florida, 
where membership is required. In addition to 
providing services to attorneys and improving the 
legal profession, it is one of the foremost 
organizations of civil society in Puerto Rico, 
offering pro bono legal services to indigents and 
weighing in on issues important to society as a 
whole, such as opposing the use of the death 
penalty (outlawed by the Constitution of Puerto 
Rico) in the U.S. District Court; providing a 
mechanism for grievances against attorneys, 
personal support for attorneys, advocating to 
protect the independence of the judiciary; and supporting the rights of women.

  Puerto Rican society is defined by the colonial 
relationship to the United States. The status 
question is a subject of daily discussion and 
debate among those who favor the status quo, or 
commonwealth; those who support statehood; and 
those who favor independence. Bar Association 
members are free to support any political party 
or status preference. For decades, however, the 
Bar Association has presented a legal analysis of 
the current status before the U.N. Special 
Commission on Decolonization, acknowledging the 
failure of the current status to comply with 
international law. Most recently, organizational 
commissions comprised of all tendencies have 
studied the issue and proposed a Constitutional 
Convention as the means for resolving the status.
  Since November of 2008, when the pro statehood 
New Progressive Party [NPP] won the gubernatorial 
and many legislative and municipal elections, 
those favoring annexation began implementing 
drastic changes in Puerto Rican society. Not only 
did the new governor convene business leaders to 
come up with a plan to privatize many government 
services, he defunded many longstanding community 
organizations, announced the firing of 30,000 
(mostly unionized) government workers, named an 
FBI agent as superintendent of police, and 
introduced legislation which would dismantle the Bar Association.

  A bit of history may help to put in context 
these latest developments. For decades, the Bar 
Association has held elections at its annual 
convention, generally electing lawyers who 
support independence. The NPP made several bold 
efforts to win the presidency, but has never 
succeeded. The organization has long been a 
target of right-wing hostility–“ including 
bombings during the volatile decade between 1976 
and 1986– becauuse of the prominence of 
pro-independence members and postures. While 
independentistas were long criminalized by the 
government and reviled by adherents to the other 
status preferences, they have also tended to 
be  Puerto Rico’s most respected attorneys and public spokespeople.

  The FBI’s assassination of clandestine 
independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, on 
September 23, 2005 sparked the latest attempt to 
undermine this venerable institution, because its 
Board agreed to rent a space for his wake, as it 
had previously done with other political and 
cultural figures. Representatives of a broad 
spectrum of Puerto Ricans attended, from the 
current and past governors to the Catholic 
Archbishop to the most humble citizens. The 
country stood still for days, outraged by this 
extra judicial execution. Now, the most 
reactionary pro statehood forces conspire about 
how to bring down the institution.

  In March 2009, the Senate passed legislation 
that would convert the Bar Association into one 
of voluntary membership, threatening a bastion of 
civil society. The House has passed a bill that 
would eliminate the annual convention as the 
forum for voting. Mandatory associations of 
engineers, pharmacists and sixteen other 
professions observe that if lawyers can’t 
protect their professional associations, they 
won’t be able to either. Efforts to conduct a 
reasoned debate on the pending legislation have 
been frustrated, including when pro statehood 
legislators convened hearings in a room too small 
to accommodate the multiple witnesses scheduled 
to testify against the bill. The Bar 
Association’s campaign to defeat the bill is 
supported by the American Association of Jurists and much of civil society.

Jan Susler
April 10, 2009

Jan Susler
People's Law Office
1180 N. Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60622
773/235-0070 x 118
jsusler at aol.com

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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