On Friday, the Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access clinic and the Puerto Rico Journalists Association, or ASPPRO, submitted a petition to the United States Supreme Court. The petition looks to overturn the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s ruling that denied public access to judicial proceedings in domestic violence cases.

The ruling was made in response to the murder of 35-year-old Andrea Ruiz Costas, a woman who had gone to Puerto Rican courts multiple times seeking protection from her ex-boyfriend due to domestic violence concerns. Costas went missing and her body was found a month later, and her case gained widespread media attention. Various organizations tried to gain access to audio recordings of the court proceedings when Costas sought domestic violence protections, but these motions were denied. MFIA and ASPPRO have filed their petition with the United States Supreme Court to gain public access to these recordings.

“The courts three times refused this woman’s request for protection and then she was promptly killed,” MFIA Journalism Fellow Stephen Stich LAW ’17 said. “It struck us as important to Puerto Rico that it be exposed why this happened in order to prevent similar situations in the future.”

The Law School clinic began co-counseling with ASPPRO after the association’s motions were denied by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, and it sought help in order to petition the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Stich said that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court intervened to “prevent a potentially erroneous decision” by the lower court to release the recordings. 

“For me it was like a slap to the face because [the Puerto Rico Supreme Court] violated so many rights,” said Rafaelli Gonzalez, a legal representative of ASPPRO on the case. 

Gonzalez said that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s actions were “unusual” and highlighted that all the events happened within a very short time span.

Still, the director of the Press Office of the Judicial Branch of Puerto Rico, Jean-Carlo A. Pérez Nieves, emphasized that Puerto Rico handles such cases with due care. Pérez Nieves wrote to the News that the Judicial Branch of Puerto Rico makes it a “priority” to take “all measures necessary” to ensure the safety and integrity of victims and to safeguard their rights — in accordance with the United States Constitution.

“The Judicial Branch of Puerto Rico manages all domestic violence cases with the sensibility, urgency and rigor required by Act No. 54 and the Puerto Rico Judiciary Act of 2003,” Pérez Nieves wrote in an email to the News.

All members involved in the case who spoke with the News mentioned the collaborative nature of their efforts to get across Costas’ story. They faced language barriers, differences between legal practices in Puerto Rico and the United States and the Supreme Court’s tight deadline for filing petitions.

“We had no choice and no chance to present any argument because the [Puerto Rico] Supreme Court knowingly tried to avoid the First Amendment issue,” said Edgar Villanueva, a legal representative for ASPPRO on the case. 

Villanueva continued, saying that ASPPRO started knocking on doors in Puerto Rico and then reached out to organizations such as MFIA for its petition to succeed.

Villanueva added that, while the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s ruling “hit hard on the confidence” people had in the justice system with regard to domestic violence procedures, ASPPRO wanted to make sure that Costas’ death was not in vain. 

“It is also incredibly important for us to respect this woman’s dignity and her memory by letting her story be told, and letting the people of Puerto Rico respond fully to exactly that, to know exactly how she was treated by these courts, and respond appropriately,” Paul Meosky LAW ’23, who worked on the case with MFIA, told the News. “We can’t move forward as a community until we know what actually happened in those courtrooms.”

Both Stich and Meosky said that the Law School’s MFIA clinic was eager to help because of the “fundamental issues” that the case addresses and the unusualness of completely denying a large range of judicial proceedings and recordings. They both also emphasized that the case is especially relevant given the high rates of domestic violence in Puerto Rico. 

The petition is especially significant legally because the U.S. Supreme Court has not taken a First Amendment case relating to public right of access directed at courts for the past 40 years, Meosky said — and the last such case the Court addressed was from Puerto Rico. According to Meosky, the four related cases that the U.S. Supreme Court did take on were strictly limited to criminal proceedings, while Costas’ case is both criminal and civil.

Stich said he found this case peculiar because the First Amendment right to access recordings is not overcome by any interest that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court cited. 

“This case is ultimately about whether a Puerto Rican law is consistent with the U.S. Constitution,” Stich told the News. 

For one, Stich explained that the victim did not have a living survivor who wanted her privacy and her mother publicly affirmed that the recordings should be released. Additionally, Stitch cited U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as “Globe Newspaper Co v. Superior Court,” that decided that the consideration of disclosure needs to be taken on a case by case basis.

On March 25, Costas first went to the court in Caguas, Puerto Rico to obtain a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, Miguel Ocasio Santiago. In the same week, she also filed a criminal complaint against Santiago seeking his arrest and another request for a restraining order. All of her requests were denied.

Soon after, Costas went missing and her body was discovered on April 29. Santiago was arrested and he confessed to her murder before committing suicide on Aug. 1.

Following the media’s identification of Costas’ body on May 2, protests erupted in San Juan, and public outrage intensified when Spanish news channel Temelundo published a voice recording Costas left for her friend speaking about her fears. 

Immediately, journalists and the public demanded access to the recordings of the judicial proceedings in Costas’ case. In response to the public’s reaction, Governor of Puerto Rico Pedro Pierluisi expressed his support for the release of the recordings on national television and stated that “the system failed” Costas. 

On May 3, news outlet NotiCel filed a request to access the audio recordings of Costas’ three proceedings, and the Court of First Instance issued a protective order denying such public access. 

“What the law actually says is that the public has limited access to the hearing,” Villanueva told the News.

On May 5, the Overseas Press Club independently filed a motion to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court to allow the public access to audio recordings of the civil and criminal proceedings. One day later, this motion was denied on the basis of judges having discretion in cases of domestic violence on whether the public should have access to the case. 

On May 6, independent from OPC, ASPPRO petitioned under Puerto Rico’s Transparency Act for the release of audio recordings of Costas’ criminal and civil proceedings with a focus on the  First Amendment right of access to records of judicial proceedings.

The day before ASPPRO attorneys presented the case to the Caguas Court on May 11, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued an order to annul the hearing. With the majority five and three dissenting votes, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court denied the disclosure of the recordings without an argument being made, citing the language of the law in question as “ensur[ing] confidentiality” in domestic violence cases. There were two appeals made by ASPPRO to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court’s decision and both were denied.

Now that the petition is submitted, within 30 days, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Andrea Ruiz Costas through her family and Miguel Ocasio Santiago through his attorney as respondents can respond. After that, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take the case. If they do so, the petitioner needs to brief the case based on merits, the other side will get a chance to reply  and oral arguments will ensue. 

“Our team was remarkably able to pull something that was markedly difficult, relatively smooth, and that’s just from a lot of hard work and hard questions asked and just very thoughtful people gathered together,” Meosky said.

Sitch shared that he hopes they have the results by June 2022.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court was founded in 1900. 

 

EDA AKER
Eda Aker covers Yale Law School and writes for WKND. She is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.