Feds Leave Puerto Rican Political Case to Commonwealth Courts

By William Peacock, Esq. on February 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Political patronage is a dirty word to many. It is one of the principles of the American Idea that in this land of opportunity, we'll choose the best person for the job, no matter their political affiliation. For about a century after our modern Constitutional government was formed, patronage was the name of the game and each change in administration meant a massive civil service turnover, and of course, corrupt bargains and payoffs for positions.

The Feds fixed the issue in 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Puerto Rico had its own remedy, the Public Service Human Resources Administration Act of Puerto Pico, which espoused "merit principles" over patronage.

In 2010, Zoimé Álvarez-Rubio, the newly-appointed head of the State Insurance Fund Corporation, a public corporation that administers the Commonwealth's worker's compensation program, terminated or demoted 232 people who were hired or promoted via internal hiring calls instead of competitive processes open to the public. She cited the aforementioned "merit principles."

Is she right? We don't quite know that yet. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court hasn't had the opportunity to weigh in on the matter. The initial administrative dispute and appeal came to differing conclusions, so it is not a clear-cut issue of state law.

Citing Younger abstention, the lower court dismissed the case. Unfortunately for them, that was doubly wrong. For one, when abstention applies, the remedy is usually not to dismiss the case outright. Instead, staying the case until state proceedings have concluded is more appropriate.

Furthermore, Younger abstention is the right idea, wrong doctrine.

In order for Younger to apply in the context of an administrative proceeding, the proceeding "must be coercive, and in most cases state-initiated, in order to warrant abstention." The plaintiffs here voluntarily initiated a state administrative remedy to challenge the legality of the mass terminations. Younger just doesn't fit.

Instead, the Pullman abstention doctrine should apply. It serves to "avoid federal-court error in deciding state-law questions antecedent to federal constitutional issues" and applies when "(1) substantial uncertainty exists over the meaning of the state law in question, and (2) settling the question of state law will or may well obviate the need to resolve a significant federal constitutional question."

The Puerto Rican Supreme Court's decision on whether the mass firings were legal will affect whether the plaintiffs have a property interest in their careers and whether they have a federal case.

Whether you call it Younger or Pullman, abstention was the right call. Dismissing the case, however, was not. The First Circuit remanded the case with orders to stay proceedings until the state matter is resolved.

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