SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Andrea Ruiz went to court three times in one week to seek protection from her estranged boyfriend. She was denied each time and several weeks later, in late April, the 33-year-old clothing store manager was found beaten, strangled, stabbed and burned to death.
The incident outraged many in the U.S. territory and prompted journalists to demand recordings of those court proceedings, only to be turned down by local courts. On Friday, they turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for help, arguing the public has a right to know whether the justice system in Puerto Rico is working or if reform is needed.
“It’s a basic, fundamental right,” David Schulz, a Yale Law School lecturer serving as counsel in the case, told The Associated Press. “Without access, people can’t have confidence that the courts are doing the right thing.”
In its petition, the Association of Puerto Rico Journalists asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case against the U.S. territory’s government. They raise two questions: whether automatic closure of all domestic violence proceedings and their recordings violates the First Amendment, and whether courts may take such action without first considering the First Amendment.
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition the government.
Puerto Rico’s Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After Ruiz’s death, the department announced new measures to help prevent a repeat of similar cases, including assigning a prosecutor to accompany a domestic violence victim to certain hearings and organizing workshops for prosecutors.
Ruiz was killed months after Puerto Rico’s governor declared a state of emergency in late January over gender violence, with nearly 5,900 cases reported in 2019 and some 5,500 cases last year in the island of 3.3 million people, with only a small percentage resulting in convictions.
Miguel Ocasio was charged in Ruiz’s killing shortly after her body was found; a couple of months later, he took his own life while in jail on a $1 million bond.
Ruiz’s mother supports the release of audio recordings of the court proceedings involving her daughter, who had to be identified via dental records. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi also supports their release.
But Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that restricting access to all domestic violence proceedings was necessary because otherwise it would prevent future domestic violence victims from seeking protection from a court.
“We all want answers, but in the quest for someone to answer, we cannot allow such a dire precedent,” the majority wrote.
Puerto Rico law states that it’s up to a judge to decide who gets to access special domestic violence courtrooms. On the U.S. mainland, the law varies by state.
Attorney Rafelli González-Cotto, who is helping represent the journalists’ association, criticized the decision of Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court.
“It’s a lack of respect to the country and to journalists,” he said. “They have the right to know exactly what happened.”
He and other attorneys representing the journalists argue in part that there is precedent given a case nearly two decades ago in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled there was a First Amendment right that allowed public access to records from a domestic abuse proceeding.
Attorney Edgar Villanueva-Rivera said access to the information journalists are seeking is vital given what has been uncovered so far by local media, including prosecutors acknowledging that a local court was not aware at the time Ruiz sought protection that her ex-boyfriend had previously been charged in the attempted murder of a former partner, a matter that was resolved in an alternate diversion program.
Now that the petition has been filed, those including Puerto Rico’s justice secretary and relatives of Ruiz and Ocasio can respond within 30 days, according to Stephen Stich, a Yale Law School lecturer also representing the journalists. After that, it’s up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether it will consider the case. The court accepts between 100 and 150 cases of the more than 7,000 it is asked to review annually, according to the federal government.