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Puerto Rico: Controversial Decision on Domestic Violence

Puerto Rico's Supreme Court upheld a decision from a lower court that stated that a victim of violence in an adulterous relationship was not protected by Law 54 of Domestic Violence [es]. The basis of the decision (pdf) [es], according to the opinion of judge Erick Kolthoff Caraballo (nominated by the pro-statehood Republican governor Luis Fortuño), is that the law's intention is to protect family unity, and therefore, adulterous relationships are outside the purview of the law. But feminists have responded that the spirit of the law is to protect victims against intimate partner violence.

The feminist coalition Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres de Puerto Rico published in its blog a press release condemning the decision[es]:

La Ley 54 se creó para erradicar la violencia en relaciones de pareja y no excluyó las relaciones en las cuales una de las partes está casada con una tercera persona. La sentencia emitida hoy por el Supremo, traiciona la intención de la Ley y envía un mensaje incorrecto y tergiversado sobre la aplicabilidad de la misma.

Law 54 was created to eradicate violence in couples’ relationships and it did not exclude relationships in which one of them is married to a third person. Today's Supreme Court sentence betrays the intention of the law and sends an incorrect and twisted message about the its applicability.

Law professor and blogger Érika Fontánez Torres expresses her dismay for this decision in her blog Poder, Espacio y Ambiente[es] and comments on what she perceives as a step backwards in the fight for equality:

Resulta tan trágico este trato desigual y esta ‘marca’ sobre las mujeres que se hace difícil, por lo insólito, comentar esta opinión. Y es que en algunos asuntos una pensaría que no hay que retomar o re-debatir ciertos temas, aspectos, ideas y entendidos que una creería ya superados, es decir, esos mínimos sobre los que una pensaría que hay un resguardo de consenso.

This unequal treatment and this ‘mark’ on women is so tragic that it makes it difficult, because it is unbelievable, to comment about this opinion. One would think that there is no need to re-debate certain matters, aspects, ideas and understandings that one would believe have been overcome, those bare minimums on which one would think there is a measure of consensus.

She adds:

Por eso, no quiero tomar tiempo para comentar a fondo lo que me parece una sentencia vergonzosa de nuestro Tribunal Supremo, una que me avergonzaría francamente de tener que discutir entre mis alumnos, de comentar con seriedad entre mis colegas en Puerto Rico y de tener que hacer alusión a ella entre juristas y académicos del Derecho con quienes tengo contacto fuera del país.

Therefore, I do not want to take time to comment in depth what looks to me like a shameful sentence from our Supreme Court, one that I would frankly be ashamed to discuss with my students, of seriously discussing with my colleagues in Puerto Rico and to have to mention to law jurists and academics with whom I have contact outside the country.

Feminist performance against domestic violence in Uruguay. Photo by Libertinus. Republished under a CC License.*

Eugenio Martínez Rodríguez, from the blog Pop Juris published a post[es] in which he aims to dispel two conclusions many people are reaching about the decision.

The first conclusion he wants to dispel is that aggressions against adulterous persons will go unpunished (although they will not be protected under Law 54):

Aunque la Ley 54 es el remedio idóneo para trabajar este tipo de agresiones aún existen los artículos 121, 122, y 123 del Código Penal que tipifican la agresión, agresión grave y agresión grave atenuada. La propia opinión de conformidad del juez Erick Kolthoff (a favor de la decisión del Apelativo) también menciona la Ley contra el Acecho en Puerto Rico como otro estatuto que podría utilizarse en defensa de este tipo de víctimas.

Even though Law 54 is the ideal remedy for these types of aggression, articles 121, 122 and 123 of the Penal Code which tipify agression, grave agression and atenuated grave agression, still exist. Even the opinion of judge Erick Kolthoff (in favor of the Appellative's decision) also mentions the law against stalking in Puerto Rico as another statute that could be utilized in the defense of this kind of victim.

Martínez Rodríguez also clarifies that an adulterous victim whose husband is the aggressor (not her/his lover) will still be protected under Law 54:

[…]En otras palabras, si el agresor de la víctima adúltera es su cónyuge, ésta sí tendrá protección de la Ley 54 aún cuando sea infiel. No es lo mismo decir “Supremo no protegería a personas adúlteras” que decir “Supremo deniega protección a personas en relaciones adulterinas”.

[…]In other words, if the aggressor of the adulterous victim is the spouse, this person will have protection under Law 54 even when being unfaithful. It is not the same thing to say “Supreme Court will not protect adulterous persons” than say “Supreme Court denies protection to persons in adulterous relationships.”

In the meantime, the Women's Caucus of the Chamber of Representatives has started taking legislative action [es] to address the consequences of the Supreme Court decision. A new bill will explicitly clarify that the law does protect women from aggressions perpetrated by their adulterous partner. The blog from the Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres [es] praised the legislative action and asks for unequivocal support:

Ya el Caucus de la Mujer hizo su parte para proteger la esencia de la Ley 54 y a las mujeres de nuestra Isla. Ahora le toca al resto de la Legislatura dar paso a su proyecto de ley y clarificar de una vez por todas que la violencia en relaciones de pareja NO es aceptable en nuestra Isla.

The Women's Caucus has done its part to protect the essence of Law 54 and the women of our island. Now is the Legislature's turn to give way to their bill and clarify once and for all that violence between couples is NOT acceptable in our island.

*Please read the full text of Law 54 here [es].
*Photo by Libertinus and republished under CC License BY-SA 2.0.


  • Unbelievable decision, thanks for sharing this story.

  • rosie

    that’s disingenuous to say that measure 54 was to protect family unity. how silly- since that very law would send a man to jail, so how can it protect family unity? Putting a man in jail is not an act of unity, even though he does belong there. maybe they should beat him with a big stick instead? and just let him go home? now THAT would actually sort of protect family unity. I’m just kidding of course.
    And besides, if he is married but his adulterous female partner is not, who is the bigger sinner here? and usually as we know, men are the aggressors and seek out younger women etc in starting those relationships. they make promises and seduce. So why is the government now leaving these double victims so unprotected? first they lose their sexual purity to these evil men, then they get assaulted. The gov better not be sending a message that it is ok to assault your mistress. That’s no way to stop these acts of adultery anyway. All they are doing is gratifying the real wife’s anger and wish for vengeance- but why not punish her husband doubly instead? He is the main transgressor, if he is married but gets a mistress. Maybe the mistress doesn’t really know that he is married anyway.
    This whole thing just reeks of male priviledge.
    At any rate, there had better be a law that protects any person from assault in a relationship, or even a friendship. Not just wives.

  • […] clarifies the misconceptions created by public officials [es] regarding the recent controversial Supreme Court decision that leaves “adulterous” women without the special protections of… [en]. […]

  • Thanks for your comments Solana and Rosie. This is truly a troubling decision, which, fortunately, does not set a legal precedent, but can prove to be harmful in many ways. There are other laws that protect victims from assault and battery, but the issue is that this specific Law, Law 54 of 1989, was designed to offer special and unique protections (with criminal and civil provisions) to victims of intimate partner violence (current or ex partner). The language used in the Law is gender-neutral and the definition of a “partner relationship” is sufficiently open to include any kind of intimate partner relationship. This was done on purpose, so the Law could protect anyone who is in an intimate partner relationship.

  • […] point.  A couple of blogs have been following up on Puerto Rico's Supreme Court's decision that victims of violence in adulterous relationships cannot be protected by Law 54 against Domestic …. And recently, the Court of Appeals of San Juan (the capital city) decided that another female […]

  • […] Puerto Rico jiskani jan wal sarnaqir jaqinakatakix, kunatix jupanakax janiw jark'aqatapkaspati aka pisqa tunka pusini kamachimpixa kunatix utxki qamawinakan nuwasiñanakax arxatiri tuqitxa. Kunatix jichhakiw khaysa Corte de Apelaciones de San Juan tuqinxa sawayawayatanawa kunatix mä […]

  • jonboy

    Ok listen PR.. I had a good friend with a law 54 for calling a girl he was dating a bad name.. You CAN NOT and SHOULD NOT attempt to write your own laws….You lack the knowledge and education to achieve this..Copy, like you always do, America’s law to the note. IF you still have a problem with domestic violence, then the problem is your people and culture, laws cant fix that. They could write all the creative laws they want in Iran, like go to jail forever for practicing Christianity in a muslim country and even get beheaded,….Well guess what, people still practice it there because it is there culture.Face it, us latin people are aggressive…

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