Tag Archives: territory

Puerto Rican judge nominated as 1st gay chief justice in U.S.

Puerto Rican judge Maite Oronoz Rodriguez has been nominated to head the U.S. territory’s Supreme Court as the first openly gay chief justice in the United States.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla announced the nomination on Friday afternoon calling it a “new time” for Puerto Rico’s judicial branch. At 39, Oronoz Rodriguez is also the youngest member of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court.

“It’s time to strengthen justice to face the challenges” and “to pass the administration of justice to present generations who will live the results,” the governor said in making the nomination.

The 39-year-old was first appointed to the high court in June 2014. She previously served as the commonwealth’s deputy solicitor general and chief legal counselor for the city of San Juan.

In accepting the nomination, Oronoz Rodriguez said it was time for her to “step down from the podium and receive with open arms a citizenry that demands human justice.”

Her nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

Oronoz Rodriguez is in a relationship with Gina Mendez, the chief of staff for Senate President Eduardo Bhatia.

Gay rights activists hailed the nomination.

“With this nomination, Maite Oronoz Rodriguez makes judicial history; not just in Puerto Rico, but for the entire country,” said Lambda Legal attorney Omar Gonzalez-Pagan. He called the nomination “a significant step towards a judiciary that reflects the growing diversity of the United States.” Lambda is a nonprofit group that aims to achieve full civil rights for gay people.

Judge allows Chippewa tribes to hunt deer at night in northern Wisconsin

A federal judge has ruled Chippewa tribes can hunt deer at night beginning next month across most of northern Wisconsin, a decision that restores a tribal right lost after the bands gave the land to the government in the 19th century.

The state Department of Natural Resources has long banned hunting deer at night out of safety concerns. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued an order Tuesday saying the tribes’ new night hunting regulations are stricter than the state’s rules for shooting wolves and deer at night. The regulations mandate that hunters take a 12-hour training course; hit a 6¼-inch bull’s eye from 100 yards eight out of 10 times in the dark; ensure hunting sites have earthen backstops; and submit shooting plans with safe zones of fire.

The ruling cements those rules in place and clears the way for the tribal night season to run from Nov. 1 to Jan. 4 in the so-called ceded territory, a 22,400 square-mile swath of northern Wisconsin the tribes handed to the U.S. government in 1837 and 1842.

“We’re pretty excited about this opportunity,” said Sue Erickson, a spokeswoman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa’s off-reservation treaty rights. “This is giving (the tribes) an expanded opportunity and it is part of their rights.”

DNR officials said they were disappointed with the ruling but would work to inform the public the night hunt is on.

The Chippewa currently hunt deer at night on their reservations, but they’ve pushed for years for a night hunt in the ceded territory. The tribes tried to convince Crabb in 1989 to exempt tribal hunters from the state prohibition during a court fight over treaty rights in the territory. The judge ruled in 1991 that night deer hunting is dangerous and the state ban applies to tribal hunters.

The Chippewa asked Crabb to reconsider in 2012, arguing the state must believe night hunting is safe since lawmakers allowed a night wolf hunt and the DNR instituted night shooting programs to slow chronic wasting disease in the mid-2000s. The tribes also presented their new safety regulations to the judge for approval.

Crabb ruled in 2013 that the tribes had failed to show circumstances had changed enough to reopen the case, but a federal appeals court ordered her to reconsider. It ruled there was little reason to believe safety concerns are a valid reason for denying a tribal night hunt, noting Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Michigan all allow such hunts and hunting has become safer over the last 20 years. The U.S. Supreme Court refused the state’s request to take the case earlier this year, which put it back in Crabb’s hands.

The judge analyzed the tribes’ regulations in her order Tuesday and concluded they’re much tighter than the rules the state had in place for the night wolf hunt and chronic wasting disease night shoots.

“Now, with the benefit of 24 years of state experience with night hunting, the tribes have been able to show that the prohibition on off-reservation night deer hunting is no longer necessary for public safety purposes, when properly regulated,” the judge wrote.

She took issue with the state’s argument that allowing a tribal night hunt gives the Chippewa a right that the general public doesn’t have. The tribes retained their hunting rights when they handed the territory over to the government in the 1800s and she blocked them in 1991 only because she felt the practice was dangerous, she wrote.

Erickson said she wasn’t sure how many tribal members would ultimately qualify to hunt deer at night.

Puerto Rico seeks to recognize same-sex marriages

Puerto Rico’s Justice Department announced earlier this month that it would not defend the U.S. territory’s laws banning gay couples from marrying. The announcement was a major turnaround.

Justice Secretary Cesar Miranda said that the government can no longer continue to discriminate against the gay community.

“It’s neither fair nor correct to defend the constitutionality of that law,” he said. “Same-sex couples cannot get married and therefore do not have access to those rights. They should be available to all those who love each other, who take care of each other, who work and contribute to this society like everyone else.”

The announcement came a year after several gay couples in Puerto Rico filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Puerto Rican laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as those that prohibit same-sex marriage and the recognition of such marriages.

“Today’s actions fulfill the constitutional promises of justice and fairness for LGBT people in Puerto Rico,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney with the civil rights group Lambda Legal. “Simply put, discrimination is never in Puerto Rico’s best interests.”

The territory’s Justice Department had defended the laws before a federal judge who upheld them, but the case has been appealed to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and Miranda said the department will no longer intervene.

Hundreds celebrated the news in Puerto Rico, including Johanne Velez, an attorney and consultant who married her partner in New York in 2012 and is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“It is a historic day, and we are ecstatic,” she said in a phone interview. “When we say it is historic, we are changing the lives of people not just for us, but around us. We hope that it will make society a better place for future generations.”

Miranda made the announcement a week after a group of legislators from Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s party said they supported gay marriage, including Senate President Eduardo Bhatia. While the governor has repeatedly stated that he is not in favor of gay marriage, he said he supports the change.

“Everyone knows my religious beliefs, but it’s not up to political leaders to impose our creeds,” he said. “We have to push for the progress of civil and human rights under equal conditions for everyone.”

Thirty-seven U.S. states allow same-sex marriages, a number that has quadrupled in the last two years. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June regarding several same-sex marriage cases that would also apply to Puerto Rico and four other U.S. territories.

Opposition lawmakers and religious leaders criticized the announcement and accused Garcia of imposing changes instead of consulting with the public and holding a referendum.

“This is a slap in the face to Puerto Rican society,” said legislator Maria Milagros Charbonier. “The government should not be playing around with issues as delicate as that of family, which is the cornerstone of our island.”

Amarilis Pagan, spokeswoman for a local equal rights committee, said in a phone interview that advocates would now push Puerto Rico’s government to reverse a law that bans adoptions by same-sex parents. The island’s Supreme Court upheld the law in a 2013 ruling following an appeal by a Puerto Rican woman who sought to adopt a teenage girl that her partner of more than 20 years had given birth to through in vitro fertilization.

Puerto Rico’s legislature has approved several measures in recent years in favor of the gay community, including one that prohibits employment discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, and another that extends a domestic violence law to gay couples.

Puerto Rico slowly warms to more gay rights

The advance of gay rights across the United States is spreading into Puerto Rico, making the island a relatively gay-friendly outpost in a Caribbean region where sodomy laws and harassment of gays are still common.

The governing Popular Democratic Party is pushing a bill through the legislature that would outlaw discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, a step taken by about half of U.S. states. Another bill would extend a domestic violence law to gay couples.

Soon after taking office in January, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an order extending health insurance coverage to the live-in partners of workers in his executive branch of government, regardless of gender.

And a popular former conservative governor, Pedro Rossello, surprised supporters and foes when he stated last month that he unequivocally supports gay marriage.

“We’re in a period where it’s important to talk about human rights,” said Rossello, who 14 years ago signed a law as governor to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages held abroad.

“This is extraordinary,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, a Puerto Rican gay activist. “We’ve reached a point of no return in Puerto Rico … Equality is inevitable.”

“The issues that we’re discussing publicly now would have been unthinkable a couple decades ago,” said Osvaldo Burgos, spokesman for the Broad Committee for the Search for Equality, which represents more than a dozen local human rights organizations.

Gay rights activists also say they are encouraged that the island’s Justice Department is prosecuting its first hate crime case for the killing of a hairstylist who was set on fire.

The momentum has not all been one way, however. The island’s Supreme Court narrowly upheld a law that bars same-sex couples from adopting children. Despite a string of legalizations in the U.S. over the past decade, adoptions by same-sex couples remain banned in many U.S. states as well.

And many Puerto Ricans remain uncomfortable with the changes. Church groups in February rallied an estimated 200,000 people against a move to include gay couples under domestic violence laws.

The spokesman for that march, Cesar Vazquez, said the state should not meddle with marriage and the family, and a prominent Puerto Rican pastor, Wanda Rolon, said children should not be taught at a young age that different types of families can exist, a proposal that Garcia’s administration is considering.

“That is very dangerous,” she said. “It’s going to raise some doubts that can bring about confusion.”

“What we need to protect in these times is the strengthening of marriage, the strengthening of families,” Rolon said. “We will be a healthier society.”

Resistance to rights for gays was even stronger in the 1970s, when gay activists protested the island’s sodomy law, only to see legislators increase the penalty to 10 years in prison from three.

Many gays and lesbians lived in fear. A serial killer in the 1980s, nicknamed “The Angel of Bachelors,” was linked to the killings of 27 gay men.

Public opinion remained largely unchanged until the early 2000s, when legislators passed a hate crime law and abolished the sodomy law. Another watershed moment occurred in November 2009, when police found the decapitated and partially burned body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, known for his work with organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights.

Soon after, popular Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin came out as gay, saying he couldn’t remain silent amid such hate, and legislators began considering gay rights bills.

Last year, Puerto Rican featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz apparently became the first professional boxer to come out as openly gay while still competing.

“Puerto Rico at last recognized that homophobia was a social evil that had to be fought,” said Serrano, spokesman for the U.S.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “After that, things began to change quickly.”

Many other islands in the Caribbean remain deeply hostile to homosexuality.

Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Grenada still uphold sodomy laws, and many gay people live in fear of exposure and violence. Those fears are not unjustified: Masked gunmen broke into a vacation cottage in St. Lucia in March 2011 and beat three gay U.S. tourists. Two of five suspects were arrested. A year earlier in Jamaica, police found the body of a 26-year-old gay rights activist who had been stabbed to death.

Last year, authorities in Dominica hauled a gay couple off a cruise ship and charged them with indecent exposure. Angry protesters have met gay cruise ships in Jamaica.

Meanwhile, a large gay cruise arrived in Puerto Rico recently and caused not even a ripple in the media.

“(Puerto Rico) has long had a reputation for being one of the friendliest places in the Caribbean,” said LoAnn Halden, spokeswoman of the Florida-based International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association.

The court ruling on gay marriage already has caused some backlash in favor of further gay rights.

“What they did was barbaric,” said Eduardo Bhatia, president of the island’s Senate and member of the governor’s party, saying that children of gay couples should have equal rights.

Carmen Milagros Velez, a medical sciences professor at the University of Puerto Rico and the mother of the 12-year-old girl at the center of the adoption case, said the Supreme Court should reconsider its decision.

“We are a family like any other, with the same challenges, probably even more challenges because we have fewer rights,” she said.