POLITICS

Could The Federal Government Remove The Governor Of Puerto Rico?

03/31/2015 10:53 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015
Christopher Gregory via Getty Images

Realistically, probably not. Yet more than 100,000 people are calling for the removal of Puerto Rico's governor anyway, and one interpretation of the U.S. Constitution could mean they have the law on their side.

A White House petition demanding the federal government depose of Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García-Padilla has accumulated 104,000 signatures since its Feb. 18 inception. The primary complaint about García-Padilla, who took office in 2013, is his promotion of the passage of value-added taxes on products between the time that a good arrives in the island and the time that it is sold to consumers. Compounding García-Padilla's unpopularity is his decision earlier this month not to defend Puerto Rico's same-sex marriage ban in court, a move harshly opposed by much of the deeply religious, Catholic island.

The Puerto Rico petition recently reached the threshold number of signatures necessary to trigger a response from the White House. The administration has not formally replied yet, though there is likely a slim-to-none chance that President Barack Obama would actually go forward with García-Padilla's removal. On the surface, the petition may seem unserious, along the lines of the viral petition requesting the U.S. government construct a "Death Star."

Still, it's possible the government could carry this request out if it wanted to, according to an interpretation of Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution. The relevant portion reads: "The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States."

The word territory is key here. Clearly the government cannot remove a duly elected state governor, but Puerto Rico could be a different story, at least in theory. In fact, there is some precedent. Between the U.S. annexation of the island in 1898 and the 1947 congressional passage of the Elective Governors Act, the president appointed and removed local governors in Puerto Rico. And the president has removed the governor on a whim on at least one occasion, when Franklin D. Roosevelt removed Blanton Winship in 1939 over concerns about widespread crime and corruption.

"Unless Congress revokes the 1947 and 1952 laws [Puerto Rico's Constitution], the president (acting on behalf of Congress) does not have the power to remove the governor," said Charles R. Venator, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut's Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. "However, because Congress has not changed the territorial status of Puerto Rico since 1900, it is possible to make a theoretical argument that Congress has a plenary power to intervene in local Puerto Rican affairs and remove the governor."

This also brings up the thorny question of whether the island is officially a territory at all. The land was never formally incorporated following its annexation. A 2008 Puerto Rico court decision ruled that it had "evolved" into an incorporated territory over the past century, despite any affirmative language from the federal government specifically declaring it. However, the ruling has yet to be upheld or confirmed by Congress or the Supreme Court.

The petition's creator -- a Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, resident listed under the pseudonym G.G. -- wrote on the petition's description that "His [García-Padilla's] administration is a threat to the economy and the people of Puerto Rico -- even to democracy. Puerto Rico doesn’t need an electoral process, it [needs] an impeachment process. The time is ripe for an investigation and action, over what has been done with the people’s money over the last two years."

The Puerto Rico governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Also on HuffPost:

United States Governors
Suggest a correction
149 Comments

CONVERSATIONS