Balzac v. Porto Rico

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Balzac v. Porto Rico
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 20, 1922
Decided April 10, 1922
Full case name Balzac v. People of Porto Rico
Citations 258 U.S. 298 (more)
42 S. Ct. 343; 66 L. Ed. 627
Sixth Amendment protections do not apply to unincorporated territories of the United States.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
William R. Day · Willis Van Devanter
Mahlon Pitney · James C. McReynolds
Louis Brandeis · John H. Clarke
Case opinions
Majority Taft, joined by McKenna, Day, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland
Concurrence Holmes
Laws applied
Jones Act; Sixth Amendment

Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution did not apply to territories not incorporated into the union. It originated when Jesús M. Balzac was prosecuted for criminal libel in a district court of Puerto Rico. Balzac declared that his rights had been violated under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as he was denied a trial by jury since the code of criminal procedure of Puerto Rico did not grant a jury trial in misdemeanor cases. In the appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgments of the lower courts on the island in deciding that the provisions of the Constitution did not apply to a territory that belonged to the United States but was not incorporated into the Union. It has become known as one of the "Insular Cases".


Jesús Maria Balzac y Balzac edited the newspaper El Baluarte. Balzac wrote an article referring indirectly to the colonial governor at the time, Arthur Yager; the article was considered libelous by the authorities.[1] Pursuant to the Jones Act of 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship among other guarantees, Balzac sought jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. In denying the request for jury trial, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico relied on two 1918 decisions by the United States Supreme Court: People v. Tapia, 245 U.S. 639 (1918), and People v. Muratti, also at 245 U.S. 639 (1918). These two per curiam decisions cited the earlier Insular Cases and held that provisions of the Bill of Rights were inapplicable to Puerto Rico even after the passage of the Jones Act.


The unanimous opinion of the Court was delivered by Chief Justice Taft. He argued that although the Jones Act had granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, it had not incorporated Puerto Rico into the Union. Although Puerto Rico had been under the control of the United States since the end of the Spanish–American War in 1898, the territory had not been designated for ultimate statehood, and Congress could determine which parts of the Constitution would apply. Taft distinguished Puerto Rico from the territory in the Alaska purchase, acquired from Russia in 1867, which had been held to be incorporated in Rasmussen v. United States. Thus, particular constitutional provisions were applied based on location, rather than on citizenship.

Taft's grounds for denying jury trial specifically echoed earlier Insular Cases reasoning. He argued that because Puerto Rico had been governed by Spanish civil law for four hundred years before American acquisition, the inhabitants would be unprepared for jury service. Taft argued that locals should be able to determine their own laws:

Congress has thought that a people like the Filipinos, or the Porto Ricans, trained to a complete judicial system which knows no juries, living in compact and ancient communities, with definitely formed customs and political conceptions, should be permitted themselves to determine how far they wish to adopt this institution of Anglo-Saxon origin, and when.

— 258 U.S. 298, 310

Toward the end of the opinion, the court uses "language that would lead to perpetual litigation in an effort to clarify the rights of the American citizens of Puerto Rico:"[2]

The guaranties of certain fundamental personal rights declared in the Constitution, as, for instance, that no person could be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, had from the beginning full application in the Philippines and Porto Rico, and, as this guaranty is one of the must fruitful in causing litigation in our own country, provision was naturally made for similar controversy in Porto Rico.

— 258 U.S. 298, 312–313

The court leaves unresolved the exact "personal rights" that were so "fundamental" that they would extend to American citizens in Puerto Rico.


Balzac was later called into doubt by a Puerto Rican District Judge in Consejo de Salud v. Rullan, 586 F.Supp 2d 22 (D.P.R. 2008). Judge Gustavo Gelpi held that continued action by part of the federal government had strengthened ties with Puerto Rico, and the latter had become an incorporated territory.

See also


  1. ^ Torruella, Juan (1988). The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-8477-3019-3.
  2. ^ Torruella, p. 98

Further reading

  • Soltero, Carlos R. (2006). "Balzac v. Porto Rico (1922), the Insular cases (1901), and Puerto Rico's status in the American legal system". Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. pp. 19–34. ISBN 978-0-292-71411-3.

External links

  • Works related to Balzac v. Porto Rico at Wikisource
  • Text of Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia  Library of Congress 
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