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Remembering Judge Juan R. Torruella

Charles R. Venator-Santiago, Department of Political Science & El Instituto at the University of Connecticut


Judge Juan R. Torruella (June 7, 1933 – October 26, 2020)

On Monday, October 26, 2020, Judge Juan R. Torruella died at the young age of 87. He served as a federal judge for more than five decades and made a number of significant intellectual contributions to the study of the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. He viewed statehood as a vehicle for Puerto Rican’s acquisition of equality within the United States. In his later years, he became a fierce public critic of the U.S. Empire and an advocate for the expansion of civil rights for all Puerto Ricans.


Professional Life
Judge Torruella began his legal career in the private sector (1959-1974) until President Gerald Ford appointed him to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, where he served for a decade (1974-1984). In 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served until his untimely death. Judge Torruella is the first Puerto Rican judge to be appointed to a Federal Court of appeals, and one of a handful of Puerto Rican judges (along with Judge José A. Cabranes and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor) to have served in the Circuit Court system. He also served as Chief Judge for the First Circuit between 1994 and 2001. Throughout his career, Judge Torruella authored upwards of 1,674 published opinions, including 99 concurring as well as 149 dissenting opinions.


Unlike the majority of his peers, Judge Torruella made a number of intellectual contributions, in different forums, while sitting on the bench. He published two books and a novel, authored numerous articles and gave substantive public lectures, and wrote important opinions that read more like law review articles. His classic book, The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal (1984) provides an alternative legal history of the origins of Puerto Rico’s constitutional status and the subsequent development of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. Two decades later, he published a version of his thesis written in partial fulfillment of a Master of Studies degree in Modern European History from Magdalen College, Oxford University, titled Global Intrigues: The Era of the Spanish-American War and the Rise of the United States to World Power (2004), which examined the international political environment that shaped the emergence of the United States as a global empire. His opinions in the First Circuit Court rulings on the right of Puerto Ricans to vote in Presidential elections, the constitutionality of Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board, as well as over key rulings on the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens (among others) not only stand out as intellectual contributions in their own rights but attest to his commitment to expanding the civil rights and equality of Puerto Ricans within the U.S. empire. 


Why Judge Torruella’s Loss Matters
Over the years, Judge Torruella moved from embracing a center-right ideology, particularly on his labor positions, to adopting and defending more liberal positions. I recall a passing conversation that I had with a former clerk of Judge Torruella who celebrated Judge Torruella’s progressive opinions. At the time I was unable to reconcile this claim with Judge Torruella’s political positions in Puerto Rico. But since then I witnessed Judge Torruella’s defense of liberal positions in his public pronouncements and talks, divergent (both concurrent and dissenting) court opinions, and other writings. His writings more emphatically defended the expansion of civil rights for Puerto Ricans. He saw statehood as a vehicle for the equality of Puerto Ricans within the United States. The Puerto Rican statehood movement has lost one of its more honest, sensible, just and serious advocates.