Judge Torruella del Valle, Puerto Rican rights advocate, dead at 87
By The Star Staff
U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Juan Rafael Torruella del Valle, the only Hispanic to serve in the Boston court and who also opposed the early 20th century Insular Cases that discriminated against Puerto Rico, died Monday at 87, the Boston court confirmed.
Torruella, who also was a staunch advocate of women’s reproductive rights, served as chief judge of the First Circuit Court of Appeals from 1994 to 2001. Before becoming an appellate judge, he served from 1974 to 1984 on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. He was also a competitive sailor, competing for the Puerto Rican team at the Summer Olympic Games in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976.
Torruella was vocal about his positions and did not hide behind the robe. In September 2013, he expressed support for bills that at the time were before the Legislature that would legalize certain uses of marijuana, contending it would help reduce crime. He also said alcohol and cigarettes were far more dangerous.
Torruella said at the time that after over 40 years on the bench, in which he had seen drug use grow, he came to realize that “the only realistic alternative” to America’s failed war on drugs is to experiment with legalization, “beginning with marijuana.”
During his productive and prestigious judicial career, Torruella published more than 2,000 opinions. He was consistently an advocate of Puerto Rican rights and dissented from a 2005 First Circuit decision that Puerto Rico residents are properly denied a voice in the election of the president of the United States because Puerto Rico is not a state. In August 2017, Torruella wrote a lengthy dissent when the en banc circuit rejected a lawsuit challenging Puerto Rico’s exclusion from congressional apportionment. Torruella wrote the book The Supreme Court and Puerto Rico: The Doctrine of Separate and Unequal, a study of the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Insular Cases, in which Torruella argues that “colonial rule and the indignities of second-class citizenship can be ended not, as in the case of the Philippines, by granting the colony its independence … but rather, by securing for Puerto Rico equality under American law” including Puerto Rican statehood. The book was favorably reviewed by Judge José A. Cabranes in the Harvard Law Review.
Torruella authored the First Circuit opinion in Planned Parenthood of Northern New England v. Heed (2004), in which the court upheld the district court’s decision declaring New Hampshire’s “parental notification” abortion law unconstitutional, and enjoining its enforcement. The decision held that the state law was inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution and relevant Supreme Court constitutional decisions on abortion.
In 2009, Torruella wrote the opinion in Noonan v. Staples Inc., allowing a suit for libel to proceed because even though the statements at issue were true they reflected “actual malice.” Torruella’s decision did not decide the question of whether this exception was inconsistent with the Constitution’s First Amendment because the argument was raised too late in the proceedings.
In 2012, Torruella joined a unanimous First Circuit panel decision (written by Judge Michael Boudin) in Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services. The decision struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to all same-sex couples, even those legally married under state law.
Torruella was born in San Juan on June 7, 1933 and, after studying in the United States and at the School of Public Administration of the University of Puerto Rico, he began his legal career in 1957 as a legal officer for Puerto Rico Supreme Court Associate Justice Pedro Pérez Pimentel.
His private practice continued until President Gerald Ford appointed him as a district judge in Puerto Rico in 1974 to begin a robust life on the bench that included being the presiding judge of the U.S. Court in Puerto Rico from 1982 to 1984.
During his tenure, the U.S. Court for the District of Puerto Rico grew from one court with three judges to one with seven judges. The court’s physical presence also expanded from Old San Juan to Hato Rey and Ponce.
Condolences started to pour in following news of Torruella’s passing. Supreme Court Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodríguez said Torruella “was a great friend to me and my family.”
“During almost 40 years in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, he was a forceful, strong and courageous voice in favor of Puerto Rico and the constitutional rights that protect all Puerto Ricans,” she said. “His career was characterized by his unrestricted dedication to the cause of justice and his deep concern for equality and fairness.”
“Puerto Rico loses a judge with a vast legal culture, proven neatness, and unwavering industry and courage,” Oronoz Rodríguez said. “To Judy and her four children, our embrace of solidarity and the most heartfelt expression of grief on the part of all of us in the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch.”
Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said Puerto Rico has lost a giant of its legal system, a trailblazer, a native son of San Juan, and a fierce defender of Puerto Rico.
“Judge Torruella has made Puerto Ricans living on the island and on the mainland proud through a distinguished career as the first Puerto Rican judge to serve in the U.S. First Circuit,” she said. “While I am optimistic that Judge Torruella’s irreplaceable legacy will endure for many more decades, his passing comes during an especially difficult time for our country. His successor has very big shoes to fill and must be carefully and deliberately chosen. On this very sad day, I join so many others in sending my deepest sympathies to Judge Torruella’s family, colleagues, and all who knew him.”
Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced also lamented the judge’s passing.
“It is with great sorrow that we learned of Juan R. Torruella’s passing, a giant in the legal world and a defender of equal rights for Puerto Ricans,” she said. “Our condolences to the family on behalf of our people.”