• The San Juan Daily Star

SCOTUS slated to review challenge to high court ruling on release of Ruiz Costas case recordings

Andrea Ruiz Costas

By The Star Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court has distributed for a Friday, Jan. 7 conference a petition by the Puerto Rico Journalists’ Association (ASPPRO by its Spanish initials) for a review of the commonwealth Supreme Court’s holding that all judicial proceedings involving allegations of domestic abuse must be closed to the press and public.

At the conference, the Supreme Court is slated to decide whether to grant the petition to review the case. The top court could also postpone it for another distribution conference.

The decision ASPPRO wants to overturn is the one that rejected access to the sealed recordings of civil and criminal judicial proceedings in which island courts denied Andrea Cristina Ruiz Costas, a victim of domestic violence, protection from her abusive former boyfriend three times over the course of a single week. Ruiz Costas was murdered by her abuser soon thereafter.

On March 25, 2021, Ruiz Costas filed for protection in the Caguas Superior Court seeking a provisional restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, Miguel Ocasio Santiago. The court denied her request for immediate relief and scheduled a hearing for March 31, 2021, so that Ocasio Santiago could present a defense, according to the Supreme Court filing.

Fearful and desperate for protection, Ruiz Costas filed a criminal complaint against Ocasio Santiago the very next day and sought an order for his arrest. She appeared that day before a municipal judge, who took her statement but found no probable cause to arrest, the filing reads.

Ruiz Costas appeared in court a third time for the March 31, 2021 hearing on her request for a restraining order, at which the court granted no relief. Shortly thereafter, Ruiz Costas went missing. Her burned body was found a month later on April 29, 2021. Ocasio Santiago was arrested and confessed to her murder. He committed suicide on Aug. 1, 2021, while his murder prosecution was ongoing.

“Public reaction to the court’s denial of protection. Immediate and intense public anger followed the news that Ms. Ruiz Costas had been murdered after the court’s repeated denial of her pleas for protection, resulting in large protests in San Juan on May 2,” the filing reads. “The public outrage intensified on May 4, when Telemundo published a voice message Ms. Ruiz Costas had left for a friend shortly after the court had declined to issue a warrant for Mr. Santiago’s arrest. In the message, she expressed fear for her safety and deep dismay about how badly the courts had treated her.”

Domestic abuse is at epidemic proportions in Puerto Rico. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union determined that Puerto Rico “has the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by their partners,” the filing reads.

“This rate doubled after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2018, worsening conditions for its already-vulnerable communities,” it reads. “The government promised reform in response, with the Governor campaigning on the issue and declaring a state of emergency on domestic violence shortly after he assumed office this past January.”

Efforts by several media outlets to obtain access to the recordings failed.

In May, a sharply divided Supreme Court denied an Overseas Press Club (OPC) motion for access to the recordings because it did not follow certain procedures. ASPPRO also sought access to the recordings after the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s ruling criticizing the procedure followed by OPC.

After several procedural steps, a hearing was set for May 11, 2021, but shortly before the hearing was set to begin, the commonwealth Supreme Court took immediate jurisdiction over the ASPPRO motion and annulled the hearing. In that order, most justices of the Supreme Court denied the request for access on the merits, without affording an opportunity to brief or argue the case.

Several news organizations, the family of Ruiz Costas and the Puerto Rico Bar Association support access to the court records.

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