Puerto Rico and the Right of Accession

46 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2017 Last revised: 21 Nov 2017

See all articles by Joseph Blocher

Joseph Blocher

Duke University School of Law

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: November 20, 2017


On June 11, 2017, Puerto Rico held a referendum on its legal status. Although turnout was low, 97% of ballots favored statehood over independence or the status quo. The federal government, however, has financial and political reasons to resist this preference: Puerto Rico would bring with it a massive, unpayable debt, and the potential to swing the current balance of power in Congress. The tension between Puerto Rico’s possible desire to pull closer to the mainland and Congress’s presumptive desire to hold it at arm’s length raises at least two important legal questions. Could Congress expel Puerto Rico by giving it “independence” against its will? Conversely, do the people of Puerto Rico have a right of “accession” to statehood, even if Congress does not act?

The answers are not obvious. International law, we argue, suggests that the people of Puerto Rico have a legal right to determine their own status vis-à-vis the mainland. Whether domestic law protects the same right of self determination is a more difficult question.

Keywords: Puerto Rico, International Law, Constitutional Law, Insular Cases, Sovereign Debt, Self Determination

JEL Classification: K33, K37, F34, F35, F54, H63

Suggested Citation

Blocher, Joseph and Gulati, Mitu, Puerto Rico and the Right of Accession (November 20, 2017). Yale Journal of International Law, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2017-47, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2988102 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2988102

Joseph Blocher (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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