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'Fierce defender of Puerto Rico': Remembering Juan Torruella, first federal appellate judge

Torruella used his legal perch to decry Puerto Rico's "colonial" situation, which he said perpetuated inequality and the island's economic crisis.
Image: Juan R. Torruella
Juan R. Torruella in San Juan in 2010.Wanda Liz Vega / GDA via AP file

Puerto Ricans on the island and in the United States are remembering Juan Torruella, the first Puerto Rican to sit on a U.S. federal appeals court, who died Monday.

He was 87.

Torruella served as chief judge for the District of Puerto Rico before he was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, becoming the first Hispanic judge to serve.

In a statement issued Monday, Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., called him a “trailblazer” and “a fierce defender of Puerto Rico.”

“Judge Torruella used his legal position to give visibility to the most pressing issues facing Puerto Rico. His tenure on the bench also helped to secure victories for women’s reproductive rights and for the rights of LGBTQ Americans to obtain federal benefits,” Velázquez said.

Torruella is known for his seminal writings on Puerto Rico's territorial status — which he said was "colonial"—but were deemed legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in what became known as the "Insular Cases" of 1901. In a Harvard Law Review forum, "Why Puerto Rico Does Not Need Further Experimentation with Its Future," Torruella wrote of the inequality brought about by the island's status.

"Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States throughout the United States’ various 'experiments' with Puerto Rico and its people, although variously labeled for political purposes and constitutionally denominated an 'unincorporated territory,' has merely perpetuated the inherent inequality of the United States citizens who reside in Puerto Rico as compared to the rest of the nation, and is the major cause of the Island’s economic crisis," he wrote.

Torruella began his career in law after graduating from the Boston University School of Law in 1957. After working in private practice for 14 years, he was nominated by President Gerald Ford to the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in 1974.

Torruella took part in high-profile rulings, such as the tossing of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence this year. Last month, Torruella was also on a three-judge panel that heard arguments in a case brought by a group that accuses Harvard University of intentional discrimination against Asian American students who apply to the Ivy League school.

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling described Torruella as “a strong advocate for the rights of Puerto Ricans” who “spent his career advocating for their equal rights as U.S. citizens.”

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