Historically, US states have received “state sovereignty immunity,” which prevents a state from being sued in federal court without consent. However, on January 11, the Supreme Court of the United States deliberated on whether or not Puerto Rico’s oversight board receives this same immunity. They heard arguments delivered by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), a Puerto Rican nonprofit news organization, and the Puerto Rico Financial Oversight and Management Board. As a journalism organization, CPI often covers PROMESA board activities and hopes to increase transparency in terms of board operations. When the oversight board refused to release certain documents, CPI took legal action.
The proceeding court case focused on sovereign immunity, where the board attempted to escape charges by arguing that sovereign immunity prevented CPI from filing a lawsuit. In this specific case, the court ruled in favor of CPI, recognizing that the board was not entitled to sovereignty. Looking further than the case itself, it has brought up important questions about the distinction between states and territories in such immunity policies. Normally, sovereign immunity is about giving power to states when there are tensions between the federal and state governments. In order to gain this immunity, a territory would need the sovereignty of a US state, which Puerto Rico currently does not have. They are still controlled by Congress and receive different rights than states.
The Biden Administration agreed with this sentiment, noting that Puerto Rico is not encompassed in the sovereign immunity policies due to its status as a territory. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed, comparing the situation to Indian tribes. She asked why the situation with Puerto Rico was addressed differently than with Indian tribes that did end up getting sovereign immunity. She added that a wrong decision could set a harmful precedent and lead to many lawsuits.